I graduated from high school in San Francisco in 1952. I had to make up some grades in order to get admitted to Stanford, so I took some morning classes at a private high school and worked as an office boy at an insurance company in the afternoons. Each day I had a couple of hours off, so I started going to the beach.
Kelly’s Cove is the beach right next to the Cliff House at Ocean Beach, and I met a bunch of guys who were starting to bodysurf there. Cliff Kamaka, a Hawaiian who was a lifeguard at the nearby Fleishacker Pool* had taught the boys the art of bodysurfing. Charley Grimm, Rod Lundquist, John Stonum, Jim Fisher, Bill Hickey — and Jack O’Neill — were some of the gang.
The water averaged in the low ’50s, so you had to really be motivated to endure the cold. They’d build a big fire on the beach to warm up after getting out of the water, and had constructed driftwood windbreaks that you could get inside to lay in the sun.
Jack was working for a company that sold firefighting equipment. He and his wife Marge and their 6 kids lived in an apartment on Sloat Blvd., across from the zoo, a few blocks from the beach. His first attempt at staying warm was a “dry suit,” as used by divers. It was thin rubber. Jack bought one He showed it to me and he was wearing long woolen underwear underneath it. Where it might have worked for diving in calm water, it didn’t work at all in the turbulent ocean. Water would come in at the sleeves, legs, and neck.
Jack didn’t invent the wetsuit. According to Wikipedia, “Hugh Bradner, a University of California, Berkeley physicist invented the modern wetsuit in 1952…” The US Navy then developed wetsuits for their divers and the first ones were being sold in stores. The wetsuit was neoprene and allowed the water to get next to your body, but kept it warm. Before they started lining them with nylon (maybe Jack’s invention), they were difficult to get on, so we had to coat our skin with corn starch so they would slide on.
I may be the only person in the world who knows this, but one day Jack went to Roos Brothers, the big department store on Market at Powell in San Francisco, and bought a wetsuit in their sporting goods department. He took it home, took the measurements off it, and returned it the next day. Voilá, he had the pattern for his first wetsuit. I know this because I stopped by to see him the day he brought it home. Like Henry Ford didn’t invent the automobile, but perfected it and made it available to millions, so it was with Jack and wetsuits.
In the early ’50s, Jack would go bodysurfing whenever he got the chance. One day he’d been in the ocean, and called on a client in the afternoon. When he leaned over in the client’s office to sign the contract, water poured out of his nose onto the papers. I didn’t realize this until he told me a few years ago, that this was what got him fired.
Pretty soon after this, he rented a shack on a vacant lot on the Great Highway in San Francisco and opened up The Surf Shop. He got a tractor to tow a big driftwood telephone pole across from the beach, stood it up and put a gas pipe to the top which he would light from time to time. He moved to Santa Cruz in 1959.
In 1960 I started work in the insurance business in San Francisco and became Jack’s insurance broker. When I quit the insurance business in 1965, my brother took over the account and was Jack’s broker until the ’80s when he (my brother) retired.
Jack was always playful. He had a sand sailboat, kind of like a Hobie Cat, but with helicopter tires and he would get up to high speeds (to the consternation of some of the beach walkers) at low tide at Ocean Beach. He used to paddle out with capped gallon jugs as floats with a fishing line with several hooks, leave them out overnight, and come back the next day to collect the hooked fish.
After he moved to Santa Cruz and got so successful, he bought a large sailing catamaran (once I sailed out with him under the Golden Gate Bridge and we got up to about 30 knots). He then started flying hot air balloons. When he ran afoul of FAA regulations and couldn’t take off and land on land, he rigged the sailboat so he could lower the mast and land the balloon on the roof of the boat. He installed a trampoline in the bottom story of his cliffside house in Santa Cruz. My brother says he was working on a submarine at one time. What a guy!
Here’s something I wrote about the O’Neill family a few years ago in a tribute to Rod Lundquist, a Santa Cruz surfing legend who had just passed away:
One night Rod and I were invited to dinner at the O’Neills. They had just moved to Santa Cruz, lived out, I think, east of the highway in the 41st Ave. district. Marge made a leg of lamb dinner and all 10 of us-the 8 O’Neills, Rod and me sat at this big table and ate everything Marge brought out, lamb down to the bone. The vibes were excellent, the kids with their youthful energy. Abundant gemütlichkeit. As we sat back, in the glow, Rod looked around and said, “Life is rich.” That statement has stayed with me all these years; when things get quite wonderful and extraordinary, the phrase comes to mind.
*One of the largest swimming pools in the world, it was 1,000 feet long by 150 feet wide and filled with salt water from the ocean; lifeguards used to patrol it in rowboats.