Two Icons of the Surfing World Pass

by on June 6, 2017 · 6 comments

in Ocean Beach

John Severson. Photo by Art Brewer

By Frank Gormlie

Two giants of the surfing world just passed away a week from each other. True icons.

John Severson, founder of Surfer Magazine, died peacefully in his sleep on Friday, May 26th at the age of 83.

Jack O’Neill. The Chronicle

And Jack O’Neill, inventor of the modern wetsuit, passed way a week later on Friday, June 2th, also of natural causes. He was 94.

Students like me who went to local schools like Dana Jr High and Point Loma High in the sixties definitely remember Surfer Magazine. It seemed revolutionary for its straight-up acknowledgement of the budding surfing sub-culture blowing up in Southern California. The photos, the crazy surf shots – and who can forget the cartoons of Rick Griffin.

And I definitely remember the day I got my first wetsuit – one of those short-sleeved duck tails – on Christmas day, 1965. I immediately grabbed my log – a 9 foot 6 inch “Duke Dana” – a local OB surfboard maker – climbed down those dangerous, slippery steps at Garbage – there were no stairs back then – and jumped into the surf. I surfed for hours in that suit that day.

It couldn’t ever have happened – to surf in frigid December waters – without that wetsuit. Wetsuits revolutionized surfing by making it a year-round sport for anybody.

Here are remembrances of John Severson – the founder of Surfer – who also made his mark in surf movies – and Jack O’Neill – who came up with the idea of making a neoprene-based wetsuit that could allow surfers to stay in the water longer.

John Severson

Cartoonist Rick Griffin and John Severson. Photo by Art Brewer

John Severson is best remembered as the founder of Surfer, but before he was a publisher, John made his mark in surf movies, playing a major role in elevating the medium to new levels of action, humor and drama.

Born and raised in Pasadena and San Clemente, California, Severson was a creative type, an art major who dared to paint an abstract scene of the San Clemente Pier and beach, with bebop surfers and pointy little surfboards. It was the fall of 1955 — a pivotal day for surf culture. You could say it was the start of surf art.

Severson had always been a multifaceted artist. He was a high school newspaper editor, hobby photographer, prolific painter, cartoonist and art teacher. And when he found himself in the army, stationed in Hawaii, he made a surf movie. Between sessions on behalf of the army surf team, he filmed the North Shore and Makaha action of the winter of 1957-’58. This footage became his first film, Surf.

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Jack O’Neill

Caption states that O’Neill worn an eye patch after a 1970s accident with a surf leash.

Jack O’Neill was just looking for a way to keep warm.

The waters in Northern California were so frigid that winter surf sessions barely lasted an hour before ice cream headaches forced surfers such as O’Neill to end their sessions, no matter how good the waves.

O’Neill, who was born in Denver and raised in Long Beach, revolutionized the surf world when he came up with an idea: a neoprene-based wetsuit that could allow surfers to stay in the water longer, an idea that every surf brand followed in decades to come, and a product most surfers in waters colder than 65 degrees use on a daily basis.

O’Neill, who lived in Santa Cruz – where the wetsuit division of the surf company still operates – died Friday morning, June 2, of natural causes. He was 94.

In a profile of O’Neill published in the Orange County Register in 2013, on the 60th anniversary of the wetsuit, O’Neill talked about how he conceived the modern-day model. After leaving the ocean, O’Neill and his friends would burn old tires on the beach to thaw their numb bodies. “I was just looking for ways to keep warm,” O’Neill said.

Surfers had few wintertime options until O’Neill created the first surfing wetsuit, in its early stages a short-sleeved neoprene vest. The guys in the lineup would crack jokes about the weird thing he was wearing…

Continue to OC Register

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Chocolate_Buddah June 6, 2017 at 6:32 pm

My condolences to the family and friend of Ocean Beach pioneers.
For some odd reason, while reading your article a very old old
late sixties radio commercial popped into my head, “the blaring trumpets
…da…da..da…,cabrillo Chevrolet is your best friend, yes cabrillo Chevrolet
is your best friend.” I think that was one of the first commercials I heard
while headed on a school into Ocean Beach circa sic, May 1969.


sloanranger June 6, 2017 at 9:55 pm

R.I.P. gentlemen – I hope you find some great waves up there.


Angella June 7, 2017 at 12:29 am

I have read your post filled the information which i am searching for a long time for my project. Thanks you


Chris June 7, 2017 at 8:51 am

Here is one of my favorite scenes from Pacific Vibrations:

R.I.P John and Jack.


Jhon Simth December 5, 2017 at 1:03 am

Hi, You have post nice blog thanks for sharing with us. keep sharing.

Thank you.


Blue Waves Surf House January 4, 2018 at 3:43 am

Good people, good surfers. We will miss you.


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