Mel Cuba Dies at 99; Saved 4 Drowning Orphans in Queens
By DENNIS HEVESI
The winds were whipping toward shore that summer day more than seven decades ago when 105 orphans from the Pride of Judea Home on Dumont Avenue in Brooklyn stepped off buses for what was supposed to be a gleeful romp at the beach in Rockaway, Queens.
It didn’t turn out that way.
And it certainly wasn’t the way that Mel Cuba, a husky 6-foot-tall lifeguard, had planned to mark his 23rd birthday — Aug. 8, 1933.
The tide was coming in and a rather rough surf was running that afternoon, when 40 of the “inmates of the Pride of Judea Home” — as The New York Times then referred to them — waded onto a sandbar, hand in hand and squealing with joy as the breakers rose. Neither they nor their chaperons on shore could have anticipated the huge wave that suddenly swept them away.
Lifeguards leapt from their high lookout chairs, climbed onto catamarans and paddled toward the screaming, flailing children. One by one, they lifted youngsters, some barely conscious, onto the pontoons of the catamarans.
Mr. Cuba, however, ran right into the water. Swimming 100 feet from shore, he grabbed one boy, then another, then two more. And somehow he managed to hang on to them, treading water for many minutes, until another lifeguard, Herbert Goodman, approached in a catamaran.
Mr. Goodman, The Times reported, had just plucked two children from the water, then “climbed aboard his catamaran and manned the oars to go to the rescue of Cuba and the four boys that he was supporting.” Exhausted, Mr. Cuba had to be carried ashore.
Although Mr. Cuba was one of six lifeguards honored by the city for rescuing 33 children, his heroics stood out from the rest, city officials said at the time. Still, in what remains one of the worst days in the history of the 11-mile sand spit along the south shore of Queens, seven children drowned.
Mr. Cuba, who later became a science teacher in Brooklyn, died on Dec. 6 in Delray Beach, Fla., his daughter Susan Rein said. He was 99.
Melville Cuba was born in Brooklyn on Aug. 8, 1910, one of two children of Samuel and Mary Cuba. In 1932, he graduated from City College, where he was a member of the water polo team. He was a lifeguard for 11 summers, starting in 1928. After working at a defense plant during World War II, he was hired as a teacher.
Besides his daughter Susan, Mr. Cuba is survived by another daughter, Madelyn Halpern; 10 grandchildren; and 24 great-grandchildren. His first wife, the former Freda Koster, died in 1954; his second, the former Sarah Brown, died in 1994.
On the day that the 33 children were saved, the Queens borough president, George U. Harvey, issued a statement: “I shall recommend to the mayor and the Board of Estimate that medals of honor be awarded to those guards whose rescue work was outstanding. Notable among this number was Melville Cuba, a guard who carried four children safely to shore at one time.”
On Dec. 29, 1933, Mayor John P. O’Brien awarded medals of valor to Morris Borodkin, Michael Davis, John Frisco, Harry Epstein, Mr. Goodman and Mr. Cuba.
Throughout his life, Mr. Cuba kept a bracelet bearing the city seal and the inscription “Melville Cuba: Lifeguard.”
Here is a moving dose of inspiration from the Times.