Leif Zars
Leif Zars

Leif Zars, founder of the historic pool builder Gary Pools, died Jan. 19, two days short of his 99th birthday.

In addition to breaking new ground in building a product that was just made accessible to the middle class, Zars leveraged his engineering background by performing research and overseeing industry standards regarding drain entrapment and diving safety.

Leif Alexander Zars was born January 21, 1924 in Munich. He and his family moved to the U.S. when he was a toddler, settling in Ohio. He joined the Navy at 17, during World War II. He spent part of his assignment on a ship that patrolled the East Coast, protecting the U.S. from German U-boats.

Zars earned a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering from Georgia Tech. Later in his career, in 1968, he graduated from the Advanced Management Program at Harvard’s Graduate School of Business.

He began his career with the Ethyl Corporation, a chemical manufacturer, as a research engineer, securing them several patents. After moving around for work, he and his first wife, Patricia, decided to settle with their family in San Antonio and enter the infant pool industry. They founded Gary Pools in 1954.

“He had gone through Arizona and California in his travels and realized that there as a market for pools in these hot areas,” says his son, Leif Zars II, now president of Gary Pools. “Being a mechanical engineer, he thought he could come up with a business around that.”

Starting in the decade after World War II, at a time when many Germans in America were wary about revealing their heritage, he named the company after of one of his sons.

At first, the firm built vinyl-liner pools, but the membranes didn’t hold up to the Texas sun, says his son Keith Zars, owner of high-end pool builder Keith Zars Pools, also in San Antonio.

At this time, the industry was just starting to use the dry shotcrete process (gunite) as a way to place concrete in an easier way, making pools more affordable for middle-class families. It didn’t take long for the elder Zars to convert as one of the first builders to use gunite in San Antonio.

“It was unique, because they more or less took a vinyl-liner mentality and put it into the gunite business, in that they thought more people should be able to afford a pool than you would have thought back then,” Keith Zars says.

Over time, the elder Zars also developed a monolithic wall-to-wall cantilever structure to help pools withstand the infamous expansive soils in the area.

In addition to breaking ground in his own market, Zars applied his engineering knowledge to the issues of preventing suction entrapment and diving injury.

He chaired the national association’s drain-cover standard writing committee when it drafted the first standard cited in the Virginia Graeme Baker Pool and Spa Safety Act. (This was with the Association of Pool & Spa Professionals, precursor to Pool & Hot Tub Alliance.)

But he researched the issue well before the federal law spurred quick change. For one thing, he was one of the first builders to standardize the installation of dual main drains as a means of preventing entrapment.

He had also performed research on the subject of pool geometry and its effects on diving safety. He served on myriad groups and published articles on both subjects.

“He was the visionary, with a focus on safety that was measurable in the field,” says Steve Barnes, director of science and compliance at AquaStar Pool Products, who took over as chairman of the drain-cover standard committee after Zars left in 2014. “[He came to it] as a pool builder who was dedicated to safety at a time when there were no standards in many cases.”

Leif Zars remained with Gary Pools until 2018, when his namesake took over. He had overseen the construction of more than 22,000 residential and commercial pools, his family said.