Calgary

Teen's remarkable 1951 water rescue of toddler leads to lifeguarding bursary

Bob Wardle can still remember every detail of Aug. 10, 1951 — the day his 15-year-old self jumped into a cold, dark cistern near Brooks, Alta., and saved a little girl who was as "blue as a pair of brand new blue jeans" when she was pulled out.

In 1951, at 15 years old, Bob Wardle pulled Frankie Bates, 2, out of a cistern and performed CPR

In 1951 Bob Wardle rescued two-year-old Frankie Bates from a cistern. After Bates died of cancer last year, her family created an award to fund lifeguard training in both hers and Wardle's names. (Meghan Grant/Bates Family)

Bob Wardle can still remember every detail of Aug. 10, 1951 — the day his teenage self jumped into a cold, dark cistern near Brooks, Alta., and saved a little girl who was as "blue as a pair of brand new blue jeans" when she was pulled out.

Frankie Bates died of cancer last summer, but because of Wardle, she got an extra 65 years out of life. 

This is a story about a remarkable rescue based on a series of fortunate events and as Wardle, now 82, puts it: "It's all by chance, it happened by chance." But it led to him receiving an inaugural award for the most gallant rescue in the Commonwealth.

The first piece of that chance was a local businessman who paid for Wardle's lifeguard training a year before he saved Bates. And now an annual bursary bearing both their names will give two southern Alberta teens the same opportunity he had. 

"It will do nothing but save lives," said Wardle. 

Summer of '51

When he was a young teenager, Wardle, whose family lived in Tilley, Alta., badly wanted to become a lifeguard but cancer had left his father paralyzed and money was tight for the family.  

One of his father's friends — a local business man — quietly paid for Wardle's training, meals and room and board in nearby Lethbridge.

In the summer of 1951, Wardle, then 15, got a job at the Brooks pool. 

The pool in the 1950s was not what you might imagine today. It was dug out of the dirt with irrigation ditches at each end. 

After six days, Wardle says about a foot of mud would accumulate and the pool would be shut down so a crew could clean it out. Those would become Wardle's days off.

'Absolute chaos'

One of his days off fell on Aug. 10, 1951, and Wardle travelled home to Tilley to visit his parents and friends. He and a buddy were in a garage checking out a car when they heard screaming coming from the neighbours' home. 

The boys ran toward the noise and discovered a two-year-old girl had fallen in the cistern at her grandparents' home. She'd been down there for 10 minutes, they estimated.

"It was absolute chaos — women screaming and crying and men yelling and running around," said Wardle. "There wasn't anybody there that could swim, there wasn't anybody there that knew about artificial respiration, there was just mass confusion."

Wardle began to tell the frantic adults what to do. 

Toddler unresponsive, blue

They had tried to shove a wooden ladder into the small opening but it had jammed partway down. 

Wardle ordered them to take it out. Then he had the men hold his wrists and lower him into the 16-inch opening.

"There was no light. It was black. The water was very cold," he said.

The cistern had just been filled with water and Frankie was at the bottom. Wardle dove to the bottom once, twice, and on what he'd decided would be his final attempt, he made it to the bottom, swiping around with his hand until he felt the girl's hair. 

He hauled her to the top, where a small pocket of air allowed him to shout for the men to pull them both out, one at a time. 

Bob Wardle, right, looks at the opening to the cistern shortly after he rescued 2-year-old Frankie Bates in 1951. (Bob Wardle)

Little Frankie was "blue as a pair of brand new blue jeans," says Wardle. Overwhelmed, he knelt beside her. 

"That's when I think the real miracle happened," said Wardle. "All of a sudden, all sound seemed to disappear and I heard my lifeguard instructor telling me what to do. I heard his voice and he told me step by step what to do."

For 10 to 20 minutes, Wardle performed CPR with Frankie's grandfather — a man he deeply respected as the local postmaster — screaming, convinced she had died. Eventually he heard a gasping sound. And then another. Frankie was breathing again. 

"We were all just stunned," says Wardle, tearing up as he recalls Frankie's family's emotions that day.

Bob Wardle, 82, holds the Mountbatten Medal from the Royal Life Saving Society awarded in 1952 after his 1951 rescue. (Meghan Grant/CBC)

The soft-spoken Wardle won't take much credit for the rescue. 

"It wasn't that I was brave, it was just that I had the training," he says. 

But the Royal Life Saving Society did feel Wardle was a hero and selected him to win its first ever Mountbatten Medal "for the most gallant rescue or rescue attempt undertaken throughout the Commonwealth."

In July 1951, at the Calgary Stampede, visiting British Second World War hero Lord Lovat awarded Wardle his medal.

Bob Wardle's Mountbatten Medal was awarded in 1952 at the Calgary Stampede by Lord Lovat. (Bob Wardle)

Over the years Bates and Wardle wove in and out of each others' lives. He attended her wedding. She would drop in on him and his wife. 

"Frankie seemed to know when we needed a visit," said Wardle. 

In another twist, the Wardles ended up on the same Cochrane street as Frankie's son Michael Bates and his family.

Now, Michael's children see the Wardles as surrogate grandparents. When Michael's daughter Ellie had to do a school project on a great Canadian, she chose Wardle.

"Bob's joke is then my daughter took him and my mom to school for show and tell, so that was kind of neat," said Michael. 

Ellie Bates (centre) took her grandmother Frankie Bates and her neighbour Bob Wardle to show-and-tell as part of a project on Canadian heroes. (Michael Bates)

Once he reached his 80s, Wardle asked Frankie to speak at his eventual funeral, never imagining it would instead be him speaking at hers last June. 

He was thrilled when, after Frankie's death, her family told him they had created an award to fund lifeguard training in both hers and Wardle's names.

"It will do nothing but save lives," said Wardle. "I am deeply honoured and pleased that they're doing this because this is going to save other people."

'She'd be really proud'

Every year, two students — one in each of the rescuee's and rescuer's hometowns of Innisfail and Cochrane — will receive $750 to pay for lifeguard training from the Calgary Foundation Frankie Bates Memorial Scholarship Fund.

Last Thursday, Grade 12 student Joseph Cline, who works at the Jayman Built Aquatic Centre in Cochrane, was awarded the Bates Wardle bursary.

On Friday, Zike Maree, a Grade 12 Student at Innisfail High School and Junior Lifeguard at the Innisfail Aquatic Centre, will be presented with her award. 

Michael Bates says his mother, who dedicated much of her life to volunteering in her community, would love this part of her legacy.

"That other kids will get a hand up that maybe don't have the money and will be able to be trained to save somebody; I just think that it hits all the right boxes of all the things she would do if she were still here."

"I like to think that she'd be really proud."

About the Author

Meghan Grant

CBC Calgary reporter

Meghan Grant is the courts and crime reporter for CBC Calgary.