From KC to Haughton, ‘Joe Delaney Learn How to Swim Program’ will have lasting impact

By VAHE GREGORIAN, Kansas City Star

Note – This story was published in the Kansas City Star shortly before the 40th anniversary of the June 29, 1983 drowning of Haughton native, two-sport Northwestern State All-American and Kansas City Chiefs’ Pro Bowl running back Joe Delaney as he tried to save three children, one who survived. It is shared here courtesy of Vahe Gregorian and the Kansas City Star.

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Forty years next week since former Chief Joe Delaney’s piercingly valiant death, his family marvels at all the ways his spirit still feels so present.

To his widow, Carolyn, sometimes it seems like only a year or so ago that he drowned trying to save three children in a water runoff pond adjacent to an amusement park despite the fact he couldn’t swim himself.

Maybe that’s because the mother of three then-young girls is still sustained by a vision of him she had as she spiraled into an inconsolable free-fall in the weeks after his death at age 24 on June 29, 1983.

“ ‘You’re not going to see me,’ ” she once told me he said after he appeared before her early one morning, “ ‘but I’m always going to be there for you and the girls no matter what, whether you see me or not.’ ”

That belief has accompanied her ever since, really, and it’s been reinforced in so many ways:

In recent years alone, that’s included the establishment of Joe Delaney Memorial Park in their hometown of Haughton, La.; the Kansas City-built monument to him at the site of his death in Monroe, La.; the proclamation of Joe Delaney Day in Kansas City and the designation of the Joe Delaney Memorial Highway on Interstate 435 near the Truman Sports Complex.

Such ongoing tributes and the admiring recognition the family so often receives through chance meetings, Carolyn said Thursday, “just make me feel real good after 40 years, you know?”

But now there is something more yet: a touching and important new frontier in the commemoration of Delaney, who seemed destined for NFL greatness after rushing for 1,121 yards in just 10 starts in 1981 to be named UPI Rookie of the Year.

The latest honoring of his name both reinforces that he didn’t die in vain and reaffirms the biblically inspired message on the headstone of a man who died as he lived:


“How you live forever is through your legacy,” said Gene Willis, the corporate social responsibility manager at GEHA and a driving force in the initiative.

So last fall, GEHA, the Hunt Family Foundation and the YMCA of Greater Kansas City announced the “Joe Delaney Learn To Swim Program, Presented by GEHA Health” — a program whose expansion this summer included $10,000 in funding to the Delaney37 Foundation to bolster its efforts to promote water safety in and around Haughton.

By the end of summer, Willis said, some 950 children will have gone through the programs here and in Louisiana.

To say nothing of the boxes of swimsuits, swim caps, goggles and towels that bear the Delaney tribute decal (featuring a gold eagle and his No. 37) the Chiefs wore in the 1983 season.

To the elation of the family, Joanna Delaney Noel, principal officer of the Delaney37 Foundation, seems to be receiving packages of those every day in the run-up to the Louisiana branch of the program that will kick off in July, with more than 100 children signed up.

In fact, more tried to sign up than they can accommodate in these sessions, especially because of a local lifeguard shortage. But they’re hopeful of being able to add another round later this summer.

“I’m just so glad that we’re getting a chance to really do it for the kids,” Carolyn Delaney said.

Funding more lessons and sending those items — and furnishing them in the programs here — is all part of a comprehensive endeavor intended to reduce the vast barriers to swimming rooted in racism and segregation, generational trauma and sheer lack of opportunity.

Those systemic issues help explain why Black children drown at a rate three times higher than white children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and why 64 percent of Black children can’t swim compared to 40 percent of white children.

And why every effort to change that is vital — something that anyone can help with through the Joe Delaney Learn To Swim Program Amazon wish list.

“We’re all about inclusion and diversity,” said Sabrah Parsons, the Wyandotte County YMCA aquatics program director and ‘Y’ point person for the Delaney program. “Aquatics historically does not have that. Pools were segregated for decades, and you still feel that in neighborhoods that are diverse, where there’s a generational gap in the ability to swim and in drowning statistics. And it’s not right.”

But it’s being made more right the last few weeks in programs at the Cleaver Family YMCA and the Parkwood Swimming Pool in Kansas City, Kan.

The happy sounds of children chirping and splashing in the water at Parkwood the other day — many for the first time — became the background soundtrack for what Parsons hopes can be part of “a generational shift.”

“This is where the rubber meets the road,” Willis said.

He meant more than the lessons being given to the groups of KCK public school children, who were greeted by Parsons telling the story of Delaney before they began to teach swimming fundamentals.

Willis also was referring to the other reassurances they received at a pool, alas, where 13-year-old Emmanuel Solomon two years ago was declared brain dead after being unable to get out of the water in the closed and unattended pool and died soon after.

That shattering story is all too common and lurks.

“We have students coming afraid to even stand in the water because they feel they may drown,” Parsons said.

That’s why swimming instructors such as John Pride III had such a gentle touch working with children on this day nearly two weeks ago.

“Once they understand they’re not in it alone, they start to really open up and they just kind of take off,” said Pride, clad like other instructors in a red “Joe Delaney Learn To Swim Program” T-shirt. “And before I know it, they’re swimming away from me.”

But earning such trust, even faith, is a process.

In this case, that started with instruction before children even got in the water.

“The first thing we taught them today was how to save someone else safely without getting in,” Parsons said.

By extending a line, in this case a noodle, while lying on their stomachs so as not to be pulled in.

“Reach, reach, reach — pull,” Pride encouraged one child. “Great job! Saving lives!”

Some were reluctant to put their heads under water or, in at least one case, couldn’t bear to get in at all.

There weren’t then and still aren’t any public pools in Haughton, which is why these lessons will take place some 15 miles away in Bossier City. The only time Carolyn Delaney remembers Joe getting in the water, she said, was when he was playing football at Northwestern State for some training drills in a pool.

“Guys were making fun of him,” she said, “because he wouldn’t go off in the deep part because he didn’t know how to swim.”

After his death, Carolyn made sure that Joanna and older sisters Tamika and Crystal learned to swim.

To this day, though, she can’t.

“The girls keep on telling me it’s never too late to learn,” she said. “But a lot of things go through my head. … I haven’t gotten brave enough yet to do it.”

But she’s thinking about it again because of this program, which is an inspiration to them because of what she and Joanna consider the genuine care of Willis and so many others invested in both a momentous cause and an homage to what Willis calls an “honorable tragedy.”

Like many might feel about a story that so easily conjures tears, once Willis learned about him as a young teen, “It never left me.”

Now, there’s another element to his legacy.

“We’re just overwhelmed by the love that we have received from Kansas City …” said Joanna, who was 4 months old when her father died and has written a series of “Joe The Great” children’s books awaiting an illustrator. “They never forget him. And this is like icing on the cake.”

And essential at the same time.

“If one life is saved,” she said, “we’ve accomplished our goal.”