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The Baltimore Sun

Suburban dream realized: Whole family's in the swim

Sun Staff

The second in a series on life at a community pool.

Ira C. Rigger saw the future and it was deep.

As deep as the deep end in a neighborhood pool in the suburban frontier, circa 1954. It was a time when subdivisions, housing developments, and middle-class castles were quickly multiplying, and some residents sought to control whom they and their families recreated with. The Supreme Court had ruled in Brown vs. Board of Education that schools must desegregate, and it was inevitable that other public facilities, including pools, would be required to open their doors to African-Americans as well.

Rigger, already in the construction field, expanded his business. "I went on to build many, many neighborhood pools," he says.

As a kid growing up in Baltimore's Pimlico neighborhood, Rigger was well acquainted with segregation. Pools that were open to him - if he had had the money - were off-limits to his Jewish friends.

Rigger wasn't entirely comfortable with the restricted landscape to which he had partially contributed. So in 1962, when Rigger and several partners purchased Padonia Park Club - a neighborhood pool that he had built - from members who could not meet their debts, he says he was able to redirect his entrepreneurial skills in a more egalitarian direction.

Under his ownership, Padonia Park Club was never segregated, says Rigger, still vigorous at age 80. Even if the pool didn't have its first black members until years later, he and his late wife, Rusty, who helped operate the pool, made sure that members didn't determine who joined their ranks.

Over time, Rigger bought out his partners. Even as he went on to build thousands of pools, the Padonia Park Club inevitably became the center of attention for the entire Rigger family. As his four kids got older, they, too, joined their parents at the club, giving swimming lessons, working on the grounds or in the snack bar.

'This is who we are'

Today, two of his offspring, Kathy R. Angstadt, 51, and Fred Rigger, 48, continue to work with him. In their office suite overlooking the Olympic-size pool, Rigger's children treat him as part Dad and part boss, even though he no longer runs day-to-day operations. When she praises her father's ability to spot and respond to trends, Angstadt, director of club operations, is careful to add, "I am not brown-nosing."

Over the decades, Padonia Park Club has become more than a pool. A year-round day-care center, catering hall and summer camp all contribute to the pool's income. But the original goal - creating a place for families to wile away muggy Maryland summers - remains the same.

Running the pool and its offshoot enterprises is an enormous amount of work. Recently, though, a neighboring developer offered to buy the 30-acre property. The family turned down the offer. "This is part of who we are," Angstadt says of the club.

She started to work there at 13. By then, the pool had already consumed much of Angstadt's life. She remembers learning to swim after a nervous start and deliberating for two and half hours before she took her first plunge off the high dive, which was removed in the early 1980s because of insurance costs.

Angstadt graduated from college with a degree in social work. But after two employees were caught embezzling, Rigger asked his daughter if she would come to work for him.

"I felt a sense of desperation on Dad's part. I felt bad saying no," she says. "I did it for him."

He didn't force her hand, her father says. "The only pressure you felt was [from] yourself," he reminds her.

Jumping in the deep end

At the pool, Angstadt found the personal challenges she had expected in an entirely different field. She met them head on, learning accounting, advertising, marketing and management. "I meet hills on a bike by going up them fast," Angstadt says.

Fred Rigger joined the pool staff after working in his father's pool construction business. It was a way to work "with my hands and with the books," says Rigger, the pool's CEO. "It presented all the opportunities. Why look further when you have something neat to deal with here?"

Two other Rigger sisters were invited to join the family business, but decided to pursue other interests.

Angstadt and her brother each have a son and daughter in their teens. The four kids have all worked at the pool; but this summer, just the boys will be there. As far as their future involvement with the pool is concerned, "anything is possible," Angstadt says.

Over the years, Ira Rigger has paid close attention to demographics and changing lifestyles. His children say that in the 1970s, he was the first operator to develop optional membership plans for those who might use the pool only on weekends, or for singles or empty nesters, for example.

He also added theme nights, camp outs, the Cabana Bar and live music to the mix. "We've tried to create ways for people to stay," Ira Rigger says of those for whom joining the pool every year is no longer a given. Often, families must choose between the pool and a vacation. Crab feasts, teen nights and carnival nights help persuade families to choose the pool.

Padonia Park Club does have its fair share of loyal members who have spent years and years at the summer oasis, as have their children and grandchildren. One married couple both worked at the pool in their youth, as did their eight children. The son of two original members is now the beverage manager at the Cabana Bar.

As he has progressed from building his first pool to creating a family business and labor of love, Rigger's journey parallels that of so many Americans who saw the future in the suburbs. They quickly learned that it would take a nimble mind to weather change and preserve that good life, while opening it up to so many more.

Rigger and his children have put endless hours into reinventing the Padonia Park Club so that members can continue to experience that same old timeless, sun-drenched, water-saturated state of being into the 21st century.

It's been hard work, but hardly a mental stretch for Padonia's patriarch. "It's part of my nature to be creative. I'm more excited by new things," Rigger says. "That's why we got into building pools."

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