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Industry Mourns the Loss of PADI Co-Founder, Ralph Erickson​

Ralph D. Erickson was an accomplished educator, writer, coach, and waterman.  And, as a husband, father and friend, his life influenced a community, a university, an organization and an industry. Ralph Erickson died on 25 May 2006 at home with his family in Lago Vista, TX. He will be remembered as charismatic, accomplished, inspirational, and to some, the toughest coach they’ve ever had. Ralph was strongly individualistic and lived life to the beat of his own drum – nobody else’s. 

Ralph Erickson was born in South Dakota on 25 June 1922. The Erickson family moved to Chicago, IL during the early 1930s, where Ralph was introduced to the underwater world in Lake Michigan. He loved the water and quickly realized his natural connection with it. Becoming a star on his high school swim team at the age of 16, Erickson joined one of the nations most highly respected lifeguard services, the Chicago Park District Lifeguard Service. As a competitive swimmer, young Erickson placed third in the 100 yard freestyle event at high school state championships. His swimming skills earned him a scholarship to the University of Southern California, where he swam on the Varsity team as a Freshman. 

As the United States engaged in World War II, Erickson enlisted in the Army and became a paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne. His first combat jump over Holland was, at the time, the largest air assault operation in history. While participating in the Battle of the Bulge, Erickson was wounded in combat in the Rhine Pocket; for which he was awarded the Purple Heart. He also received the Bronze Star Medal for meritorious achievement in ground combat against the armed enemy in the European Theater of Operations. 

Following the war, he attended Northwestern University, earning a Bachelors of Science Degree in Physical Education (1949) and a Masters Degree in Education, Counseling and Guidance (1953). Over three decades of coaching in Chicago-area high schools and at Loyola University, Erickson led many swim and water polo teams to championships.

In the summer of 1959, he started the Erickson Underwater Swimming School. With a strong desire to share his passion for scuba diving with others, Ralph attended the very first NAUI Instructor Training Course in Houston, TX in 1961 and became NAUI Instructor number 35. In the same year, Ralph wrote his own scuba instruction book, Under Pressure, which he used for his classes. 


At a divers’ association banquet in 1961, Ralph met John Cronin (then Midwest Sales Representative for US Divers) and struck up, what would be, a lifelong friendship. Five years later, over a bottle of scotch, Erickson and Cronin formed a new diver training organization, aptly named the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI), with Erickson as president.

Diver education became Ralph’s passion as he created and implemented the training programs used by PADI. Developing instructional guidelines, performance objectives and student manuals for 11 PADI certification levels – Skin Diver through Master Instructor - was revolutionary in the dive industry. Many of Ralph’s ideas that were considered new and radical at the time are now the cornerstone for diver education and the backbone of PADI’s continuing education system to this day. 

In 1971, Erickson and Cronin made the decision to move the PADI business to California where it could flourish. Ralph, busy with teaching diving, teaching swimming and coaching water polo at Loyola University, chose to stay in Chicago. 

In June 1987, Erickson retired from coaching at Loyola University but not from training divers or teaching swimming as a community service. Ralph owned and operated an International PADI Instructor Training Center in Chicago, IL with business partner Patrick Hammer. It was through the dive center that Ralph trained thousands of divers and hundreds of instructors; often using his favorite training site, Racine Quarry in Wisconsin. Moving to Texas in 1990, Ralph and wife Karen continued teaching.

Erickson wrote many articles on diving and water sports for trade journals and magazines. He received many awards and honors for his contributions to swimming, water polo and scuba diving. In 1980, Erickson was inducted into the High School Swimming Coaches Association Hall of Fame. In 1986, he received the High School Water Polo Hall of Fame Award and was inducted into the Loyola University of Chicago Athletic Hall of Fame. The Diving Equipment and Marketing Association honored Erickson in 1992 with the DEMA Reaching Out Award for Education and he was inducted into the DEMA Hall of Fame. In 2004, he received the Our World Underwater Achievement Award for his contributions to diving. More recently, Ralph was elected to the International Scuba Diving Hall of Fame (induction to be in 2007).


Ralph Erickson’s accomplishments are impressive. But, as anyone who asked Ralph would know - he was most proud to have a loving, devoted wife and an energetic, talented, young daughter. Karen and Karina kept his heart young and his face smiling.


Ralph will be missed, but his life will be remembered and celebrated as a significant contribution to shaping young minds, inspiring great athletes, mentoring future leaders, and revolutionizing an industry. The PADI Family extends its deepest condolences to Karen Erickson, Karina Erickson and the family and friends who were lucky enough to know Ralph over the years.


Ralph Erickson’s life will be celebrated during a memorial service on 8 June 2006, 4:00 PM at Cabo Loco, 1900 American Drive, Lago Vista, TX. In lieu of flowers, the Erickson family requests donations be made in Ralph’s memory to The Project AWARE Foundation ( ); The Tim Early Foundation ( ); or the Ralph Erickson Educational Foundation - currently being set up in Austin, TX as a 501 (c)3 organization to help fund scholarships for future instructor development candidates.  


A memory book is being created for the family. Please share your favorite stories and memories of Ralph. Personal condolences and stories/photographs for the memory book can be sent to PADI Human Resources Department at +1 800 729 7234, ext. 2231, 30151 Tomas Street, Rancho Santa Margarita, CA 92688


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