But Michelle noted, a typical conversation with her husband at the end of his long days might include: “I saved two children from drowning today,” or “I saved another boat from sinking today.”
Or even, Michelle continued, Bill might have said something more unusual like: “I figured out how to tow a dead whale to keep it away from the beach,” or “I jumped out of a helicopter, I was in the news, I caught poachers, I searched a lake for a drowing/accident victim and found the body.”
Once, Michelle said, Bill's answer was, “I followed a machete-wielding woman around the beach today until police arrived.”
Mostly, Michelle remembers Bill saying, “I get to go to work today,” as opposed to “I have to go to work today.”
Longtime lifeguard and lifeguard union chief Ed Harris, a colleague of Bender, noted he's saved countless lives – including his own.
“In 1993, I was in Cabo with Bill and we were making a 100-foot free dive and on my return I went unconscious,” Harris said. “He (Bill) saw me going unconscious, and as I started sinking back down, he pulled me to the surface and shook me (awake). I absolutely owe my life to Bill.”
Harris, referring to Bender as a “legend,” pointed out he and other San Diego lifeguards “made 9,000 rescues this year alone.”
Of Bender, his friend and colleague, who will officially retire Feb. 9, Harris added, “he will be leaving a void to fill,” while noting Bill “still held, at age 55, a lot of records and can still compete against the younger guards and win.”
That's a feat, Harris noted, “few people 55 years and older can do at that level.”
Bender is a San Diego Lifeguard sergeant and a member of the Dive Rescue/Recovery Team, Boating Safety Unit Level 3 Boat Operator, and a field training officer of all skills.
Asked if he'd encourage people to become lifeguards, Bill Bender replied, “Absolutely.”
But, when asked what aspiring lifeguard's expectations should be, he answered, “You're not going to get rich.”
Though he was quick to add, “It's a fun job that you like to go to every day and it is certainly satisfying helping people out.”
Bender talked about the most difficult aspect of lifeguarding.
"I remember one day a gentleman drowned at Mission Beach and we had to bring his kids in to our office and tell them, 'Your father is not going to come back,'" he said. "That is really the hardest part of the job, and I've done it a lot over the years – way too much.”
But the occupation does have its satisfying moments, and there is certainly a counterbalance with the huge number of lives saved versus the much smaller number lost.
An avid spearfisherman and diver, Bender plans to continue to do a significant amount of both, after retiring.
Reflecting back on his lifeguard career, Bender said he's proud of having played a role in the evolution of the San Diego Lifeguard service into a more professional organization emulated worldwide.
“We now have 24-hour lifeguarding service, and we've hired more guards so they don't have to work alone at night,” Bender said. “Over the last 35 years, it's just been rewarding to say we've been able to make those kinds of changes.”