Bill Busch's passion for scuba diving started early, never waned

Saturday, April 19, 2014 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 11:56 a.m. CDT, Saturday, April 19, 2014
Bill Busch teaches a scuba diving class at Hickman High School swimming pool. Busch, a former professional swimmer, teaches scuba diving at MU. He has been a scuba diving instructor for 50 years. Teaching scuba diving has given him the opportunity to build strong relationships with his students, who often return to help with his class, even after they have become certified.

COLUMBIA — Within a two-week span in 1957, Bill Busch pulled two dead bodies out of the water.

One was an 8-year-old boy who drowned in a country club lake; the second was a teenager who died just two weeks later in a suburban lake outside of Chicago.

Busch was only 17 at the time, but the incidents sparked interest in a career that started when he was a college swimmer and continues to this day as a scuba diving instructor at MU.

He has spent at least 50 years around the water, including a 42-year stint running the old MU swimming pool at the corner of Rollins Street and Maryland Avenue.

Teaching scuba diving has given him the opportunity to build strong relationships with his students, who often return to help with his class, even after they have become certified.

It was during his freshman year on a swimming scholarship at the University of Southern Illinois that fate intervened.

During a school break, a man and his 8-year-old nephew had gone out in a paddleboat on the Westlake Country Club lake in Jerseyville, Ill. The boat flipped over, and the boy slipped under the water. 

A few of the witnesses knew Busch was a college swimmer and called him to help. When he arrived at the country club, a crowd had gathered around the lake, but no one was taking the initiative to rescue the boy.

Busch and a doctor, who was also on the scene, began to search for the body, but it was Busch who located the body and brought it to the surface.

Two weeks after that drowning incident, tragedy struck again.

Another drowning incident

At the time, Busch’s family was developing a recreational area on a lake west of Chicago. A young family acquaintance who lived on a nearby farm had decided to go for a swim in the lake.

Busch’s father and sister saw the teenage boy struggle, then go under. They immediately called Busch, who was 30 minutes away.

He rushed to the area and dove 40 feet to pull the boy's body from the lake. The teen’s mother, who was not a strong swimmer, decided to plunge into the water after her son. She began to flail, and Busch pulled her out, as well.

After this second incident, a Veterans of Foreign Wars group in Illinois furnished Busch with a full array of scuba diving gear to aid in future rescues.

While he never had reason to use the gear in another incident, it kindled a passion for scuba diving.

A demanding class

Busch teaches the classroom portion of the diving class at MU. The rest of the course takes place in the Hickman High School pool. Students must spend 136 hours in the pool, the classroom and open water before they are certified.

The class has taken a seven-day trip to the Caribbean — usually Grand Cayman or Cozumel — every year since 1964. For many years, Busch took the students, but recently, his assistant, Laura Vie, has assumed the role.

Students who can't make this trip go to Bull Shoals Lake in southwest Missouri for four days. They cannot be certified until they have gone on one of the two trips.

Anyone can register for the class through the MU catalog, and age is not a factor – but the ability to swim is highly recommended.

“If you’re human, I’ll let you enroll,” Busch said. “If you can’t swim, I’ll let you in. I’m here for the student that wants to try and likes the challenge both physically and mentally.”

Building relationships

After every class, Busch joins his students for a meal at Shakespeare’s; after every exam, the class goes to Peking, a Chinese restaurant.

“They’re my family,” Busch said. “I’ll meet them anytime, anyplace to help them, whether in the pool or at Shakespeare’s after class enjoying a beverage and pizza.”

Bonding outside of the classroom is helpful, said student Dana Pieper. Every student has a teaching assistant to help them navigate the experience.

“It’s really helpful because when you get to know your TAs, it makes you more comfortable asking for help (during class),” Pieper said.

Anyone who passes Busch’s class can be a teaching assistant, she said. Often, former students will stop by during class and help out.

Pieper said she plans to do so, as well, after she gets her certification so she can keep up her skills.

“It would be helpful for them and fun for me to see the process from the other side,” she said.

Busch keeps a list of life lessons and advice on the blackboard in his classroom. They include, but are not limited to:

  • “If you walk toward the light, the shadows are always behind you.”
  • “Hold your tongue and you will hold your friend.”
  • “Team spirit is what gives so many companies an edge over their competitors. You are starting to get this same spirit in S.C.U.B.A.”
  • “Experience is a comb life gives you after you lose your hair.”

Outside of class, Busch is a nutrition fanatic and exercise bug. It’s not uncommon for him to get to class early and do some sit-ups and push-ups before his students arrive. He is also known to stay at the pool after class and keep swimming.

“If he can do all this, you know you have to be able to,” Pieper said.

Busch said he will retire "when he dies," but he is in the process of turning the wet section of his class and the skill requirements over to Vie. Vie, an exercise physiologist, has been Busch's assistant for 12 years.

“She’s a dynamite lady,” Busch said.

Faith is also important to Busch. He holds the position of "faithful pilot" in the Columbia chapter of the Knights of Columbus. The position is third behind the president of the organization.

Busch, who loves a good quote, has a new favorite: “Obstacles are what you see when you take your eyes off the Lord.”

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