What’s a friend for?

Photo by Ron Leir/ Diego Ron (c.), flanked by friends Julius Spohn (l.) and John Schmidt.


Spohn’s lakeside cabin.


By Ron Leir

A relaxing rowboat ride on a Morris County lake nearly became a death trip for two non-swimmers when the boat capsized, but a Harrison man saved the day.
Julius Spohn, 69, of Newark, and John Schmidt, 27, of East Newark, credit their companion, Diego Ron, 24, of Harrison, as the “hero” who rescued them from the waters of Longwood Lake in Jefferson Township on the afternoon of Thursday, Sept. 15.
When asked about the ordeal, Ron, a Harrison High School graduate who works as a waiter at the famous Junior’s Restaurant in Times Square, shrugs and takes it in stride, as if he were taking a customer’s order.
Spohn, a former Marine and Wall St. trader who now works as a part-time nurse, said he met Diego about two and a half years ago when the younger man was on the wait staff at Tops Diner in East Newark, and Diego introduced him to his lifelong pal, John.
Spohn owns a cabin near the lake and keeps a 10-foot aluminum rowboat there for pleasure outings, and he invited his buddies to join him for the day.
“Diego was doing the rowing in the front of the boat, and John and I were sitting in the back,” Spohn said. “We all had bathing suits on.”
There were floatation cushions in the boat, but neither Spohn nor Schmidt was wearing a life jacket.
As they went along, the trio took turns tossing a large Styrofoam airplane glider into the air to see how far it could fly, Spohn said.
When they reached the middle – and deepest part – of the lake, Diego figured he’d go for a swim, so he stood up and dove into the water.
“When he did,” Spohn said, “the boat capsized,” dumping Spohn and Schmidt into the drink.
Once he realized he was sinking, Spohn said, he instinctively began kicking his legs to propel himself to the surface. “I came up in a panic mode.” And he managed to grab hold of the flipped-over boat.
Diego –realizing the situation – grabbed one of the two cushions and handed it to Spohn, who placed it under his right arm while continuing to hold onto the boat.
Schmidt – who had also gone under – came up under the overturned boat, but was going under for a second time when Diego reached him. The rescuer pulled him out and told him to climb on top of the boat, which Schmidt did, but it began to sink because of his weight, Spohn said.
When Schmidt complied with Diego’s call to get off the boat, it flipped back right-side-up, but there was too much water in it to bail out.
Through all this, Spohn was able to maintain his grasp on the craft while holding onto the floatation cushion for dear life.
At this point, Spohn said, “Diego grabbed John and swam with him to the road side of the lake.” Diego estimated the distance at “about 50 yards across.” There, people who had emerged from various lakeside cabins after having heard the men hollering, helped Schmidt out of the muck. An ambulance took the violently shivering man (from shock) to Dover General Hospital where he was treated and released.
After saving Schmidt, Diego swam back to the boat to get Spohn and told him to release his hold on the boat so he could pull him to shore.
Spohn, still in panic, refused.
“I told him to pull the boat over to the other side while I held on to it,” Spohn said. “He tried but said that it was too much for him to do.”
Here’s how Diego remembers the moment: “I said, ‘If you don’t let go (of the boat), you’ll drown.’ ’’
Finally, Spohn relented. And was pulled to shore by Diego. Who then promptly entered the water yet again, this time to retrieve the boat – until local cops who had arrived at the scene told him to stop. Another cabin owner, Mark Christiana, volunteered to get the boat back.
Spohn remembers two previous water mishaps: when he was “9 or 10,” a nasty schoolmate pushed him into the pool at Newark’s Boylan St. School and he had to be pulled out; and, years later, a Marine D.I. forced him into a training camp pool to try to conquer his fear of water.
It didn’t work.
Still, after managing to sort of dog-paddle his way back and forth along the shallow end of a pool, “so long as my feet could touch the bottom,” Spohn was deemed to be a “qualified” swimmer by his Marine superiors.
Spohn, who was one of six Marines to serve as a bodyguard unit for President John F. Kennedy and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy during a two-week trip to Mexico City in June 1962, said he had never given a thought to the possibility of his boat tipping over during the 25 years he has owned the lakeside property.
Now, of course, he does.
Asked what lesson he’s learned, Spohn said: “Buy some lifejackets. And not to allow more than two people in the boat at one time.”
“It’s thanks to the quick action of my friend Diego in saving our lives,” Spohn said. “God bless him. And God bless all those who had anything to do with this rescue of me and John. It was a day I never want to relive again.”
One eerie footnote: While driving home from their escapade, the three men were treated to the sight of a double rainbow in the sky over Rt. 80 in Parsippany.
“Maybe it’s a good omen,” said Spohn.

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