Life saving comes full circle

Milwaukee native shares family ties to Fifth Avenue Beach

Fifth Avenue Beach has several warning signs about swimming cautiously, and a flag warning others about the lake conditions. A red flag was posted on July 27, warning others to stay out of the lake. (Ashlyn Korienek/ News Advocate)

Fifth Avenue Beach has several warning signs about swimming cautiously, and a flag warning others about the lake conditions. A red flag was posted on July 27, warning others to stay out of the lake. (Ashlyn Korienek/ News Advocate)

MANISTEE — When Jeff Cavett stepped foot on Fifth Avenue Beach for the first time in years, he did not expect to save four lives that day.

Jeff, of Milwaukee, Wis., spent many years visiting Manistee with his family. Often, he spent his time at the beach in Lake Michigan.

Janet Cavett, his mother, grew up in Manistee and was a lifeguard for many years on the same beach where he would later save the lives of four children. His father, Dennis Cavett, worked at the U.S. Coast Guard Manistee on Fifth Avenue Beach, where his parents met in the ‘60s.

“Jeff was pretty well brought up in Lake Michigan,” Janet said. “As far as, spending time on the beach, it was mostly in Manistee. He learned the difference between lake swimming and pool swimming, because you have to be much more conscious of many things.”

Jeff shared the details from his rescue on July 27.

After several years away from Manistee, he was relaxing on Fifth Avenue Beach with his children, wife



and sister-in-law, when the waves in Lake Michigan began to run wild.

The currents were strong and the waves were rapid. It was a red flag at that moment, when several children were being engulfed by waves.

Jeff, who was in the water with his son, noticed a child struggling to escape the lake. With a strong background in swimming, and 19-years as a firefighter with the West Allis Fire Department in Milwaukee, he knew he had to help.

“I saved a small boy behind my son and he was in five and half a feet of water. The waves were coming three or four at a time,” he said. “He was under water, and I took him back to the beach.”

Moments later, Jeff heard the screams of a small girl and boy, who was trying to save her from massive waves crashing over the two.

“The little girl was going under three consistent waves in a row,” Jeff said. “I looked over and I was a good 30-20 feet from her, so I picked her up out of the water and grabbed her brother.”

After saving three children and battling strong currents, Jeff was both physically and mentally tired. However, his rescue was not over.

He heard a call for help from a local resident asking to save his nephew, who was pulled far out into the lake.

“I was a little overwhelmed by my third rescue. I was already psychologically spent in disbelief,” he said. “Ten minutes later, someone is screaming for me to help his nephew — without a second thought I went.”

He made several maneuvers to push both the child and his uncle toward the beach, however he needed to come up for air. The rescue took about five minutes, but Jeff said it felt like 45 seconds.

To both Jeff and his family, it felt there was a reason he was at the beach on that day.

“I spent my whole life growing up on that beach, though I am a Milwaukee native now,” Jeff said. “I spent more time on that beach than any other beach put together. All of the lessons from my father and mother about how the lake changes, when it changes and what to do.”

Janet worked as a lifeguard for three years from 1960-62 at First Street Beach, and mainly, Fifth Avenue Beach.

“I took all of my swimming lessons in Lake Michigan. Once I got my certificate, I was hired for three years,” Janet said. “I preached to Jeff a lot, because I can’t tell you, as a lifeguard, how many times I took children out from the shore over to their parents.”

Performing several rescues herself in the past, she said it was astounding to hear what Jeff accomplished recently. However, Janet said this is what she and his father prepared him for throughout his life.

“It doesn’t surprise me, he has always been aware of all situations and good to other people,” she said. “Other people would not have attempted that, but because he was taught the differences in the water he felt a little safer trying to save them.”

Although Jeff was merely visiting Manistee that day, he said the work of a firefighter never ends.

“I am humbled to have been able to serve that day,” he said. “The fire service does not leave you when you are not working. I am always on duty. The lifesaving part does not end for me.”

Following in his parent’s footsteps was an experience he could hardly describe.

“For me to be there at that time, to have that history of my mom and dad growing up there on the lake, really felt like that was all preparation for that rescue,” he said. “To put what has happened in my life, along with being a fireman, right into action on that day was an odd, wonderful divine intervention.”



Posted by Ashlyn Korienek

Ashlyn is the cops & courts and city reporter for the Manistee News Advocate. You can reach her at (231) 398-3109 or

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