Chuck Thomas was not much of a boat guy despite 32 years as head painter for the iconic Star of India and the other ships in the San Diego Maritime Museum. He said he much preferred riding his motorcycle out in the desert to an afternoon cruise on a sailboat.

Thomas was the first person I ever spent the day with for our People at Work series (which is celebrating its two-year anniversary today). Our former photographer, Jessica Horton, came along with me, too, and snapped this photo.

I gave Thomas a call this afternoon to see what he’s up to now, two years later. He retired in January, he told me, but quickly found something to make him only semi-retired — he’s now a lifeguard, fitness instructor and swim instructor at the YMCA in City Heights.

“It’s a completely different vocation but there’s still water involved,” he said

He took the gig to supplement his Social Security payment. He said he wasn’t ready, financially or emotionally, to retire.

“Some people look forward, I guess, to watching the roses grow, but that’s not me,” he said.

Something that struck me about Thomas when I interviewed him was how passionate he was about the ships. It was his job to know what paint went on what windowsill, what wall was getting sun-bleached, what banister’s finish was chipping. He said by the time he left in January, the passion for working hard hadn’t disappeared but he wanted to find a new outlet for it.

“If you enjoy what you’re doing it makes it a lot easier than if you’re just doing it for the money,” he said. “I’d been doing it for 32 years and it was getting a little bit stale. … But I know there are a lot of places as a painter that would’ve been a whole hell of a lot worse than working at the Maritime Museum.”

Now, Thomas is the one who opens the Y in the morning for lap swimmers, the (mostly) seniors who show up when the pool opens. He teaches aqua-size classes to seniors and some swim classes to kids.

“It’s not really Baywatch, it’s gray-watch,” he joked.

I asked Thomas if he’s been back to the museum to see how the ships are looking. He has, he said, and he had nothing to worry about.

“The guy who’s the head painter now, Sal — I’ve been grooming him for years,” he said. “He fit in just like he was supposed to; there wasn’t even a hiccup.

“I invested a lot of time into those boats,” he continued. “It wouldn’t do to have any Joe Blow that comes down the boulevard with a paintbrush that comes in and takes over.”


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