Jack O'Neill Photos by Dina Scoppettone Viara
Cover Stories

Santa Cruz Remembers Jack O’Neill

The legacy of a beloved surfing innovator, ocean enthusiast and storied character

Photo by Dina Scoppettone Viara

On foot, via bicycle and in cars, a trail of Jack O’Neill’s friends and fans snakes past his home at 23610 East Cliff Drive on Saturday, June 3. Flowers, O’Neill hats and hand-drawn pictures decorate the sidewalk in front.

Below the cliff, surfers carve up beautifully breaking waves. But no one will bark surfing advice at them from an oceanfront patio above—something O’Neill, who died of natural causes at the age of 94 on Friday—was known for doing.

Dripping-wet shortboarders climb the steps from the beach, pausing silently to admire the homage as they stroll back to their cars. The whole residential block feels eerily quiet, not just because of the somber mood, but also because of the obvious fact that Santa Cruz’s eye-patch-wearing legend, who lived for the ocean, is no longer standing watch over it.

Ask most any local about O’Neill and you’ll hear words like “visionary” or “revolutionized”—plus the observations that “He really put Santa Cruz on the map” and “We wouldn’t be warm in the water without him.”

Randy Hall, who’s lived in Santa Cruz since moving here with his family at age two, 65 years ago, went by O’Neill’s house last Saturday to drop off a glass vase of flowers that he left in the pebble-filled front yard, behind a faded wooden fence.

“It was an exciting time in Santa Cruz, back in the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, and Jack was such an innovator with the wetsuit and surfing, and there was always something interesting happening with his hot air balloon that he would fly all over [Steamer] Lane,” Hall says. “It was a sleepy old retirement town before that. With his innovations in surfing, it brought in a lot of energy. He was cool, and he would drive around in his old Jaguar. You just had a feeling that Santa Cruz was a center for a lot of lifestyles that were fun and healthy. He personified the surfing attitude. It allowed for the feeling of that experience to rub off on future generations.”

O’Neill was not the only one to experiment with neoprene water suits in the 1950s. But at his surf shop—first in San Francisco and then in Santa Cruz—he mastered the craft, making it his gift to the surf community.

“The wetsuit changed the nature of the sport exponentially,” says local historian Geoffrey Dunn. “Whether he developed the suit or not, he popularized it and commercialized it, and it changed the sport forever. When we were young here, buying a used O’Neill wetsuit was a score. They were like drugs. I remember when I got one. It was a short john. It was a great summertime suit. Instead of staying out for an hour, you could stay out for a few.”

Back in the ’50s, UC Berkeley physicist Hugh Bradner was also tinkering with neoprene and developed a similar suit, as did Bob and Bill Meistrell, two brothers in Southern California, but their designs were tailored more toward diving and not as durable. Drew Kampion, O’Neill’s biographer, says it was O’Neill who developed thicker layers of padding on various parts of the suit to make paddling easier without sacrificing warmth.

In the 1960s, the Santa Cruz Sentinel marveled at how warm those early suits were. Columnist Wally Trabing described the tight-fitting outfit as a “head-to-toe girdle that improves your figure by 20 pounds,” adding that “Once incarcerated, you feel vaguely like a can of beer that’s been all shook up.”

A decade later, O’Neill was testing out an early version of the surf leash and damaged his left eye, prompting him to start wearing the eyepatch that would become a trademark for him. “And then he got the pirate look going,” says surfing historian Kim Stoner, who has a ’62 O’Neill board hanging in his living room. “That fit Jack to a tee.”

O’Neill, after all, was an all-around nautical master. In addition to being a wildly successful businessman and a surfer himself, he was a sailor, a hot air balloonist and a windsurfer—not to mention an underrated bodysurfer. That pirate-like black eye patch—to go with his graying beard—would cement his image as an icon and even provide the company, which shared his name, with new logos. And when it comes to O’Neill, brand loyalty is no joke. Fans like Michael Thomas of Lodi wear O’Neill pretty much all of the time.

“I have a hat, some swimsuits, shirts, flannels. My girl, she rocks a couple bikinis from O’Neill and also a couple hats. My boys, same thing—swimsuits and a few shirts, a few hats, all those styles,” Thomas said Friday night as he perused O’Neill on Pacific Avenue, with his family still reeling from the news of the man’s passing several hours earlier. “His design is going to be imprinted for another 10 or 15 years. The style’s almost immortal. You can pick up some shirts from 10 or 15 years ago, and it looks like it just came off the shelves.”

Ten years ago, the style took on a life much bigger than Santa Cruz, when O’Neill sold the trademark to a European company—for more than $200 million, according to a source close to the deal. That decision spread the image and clothing logos even farther and wider. O’Neill Wetsuits, now a separate group, is still family-owned and run by Jack’s eldest son, Pat. There are only four O’Neill surf shops, all of them local and owned by the wetsuit company.

The man’s true legacy, at least as far as O’Neill himself was concerned, is in a catamaran called the O’Neill Sea Odyssey, which he helped design.

Close to 94,000 students from all over the Monterey Bay, San Francisco Bay Area and Central Valley have come for field trips on the 65-foot vessel to learn about marine biology and the fragility of Earth’s ecosystems. “When he looked out into the ocean, he saw a playground,” says Dan Haifley, executive director of the program. “He also saw a classroom, and he wanted to protect it.”

Many of those who come to Santa Cruz for a sail are low-income students, and it is often their first time seeing the ocean. Within the next year, the Sea Odyssey plans to welcome its 100,000th student, and it’s on a fundraising campaign to celebrate that landmark.

“Jack’s passing certainly is the end of an era for us. This was his vision. He started the organization, along with his son Tim,” Haifley says. “He regarded the ocean as a living entity. It has a lot of ecosystems in it. His philosophy was that the ocean is alive.”

O’Neill often told people the program was the best thing he ever did.

“The wetsuit is [Jack’s] commercial legacy, but I think the O’Neill Sea Odyssey is his spiritual legacy,” Dunn says. “It continues to give back to the community, and the world at large.”

Many surfers remember his goodwill through the years, like his support for the local junior lifeguard program and sunscreen awareness campaigns that he sponsored.

Nine years ago, the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum was at risk of closing due to city budget shortfalls. O’Neill gave it enough money to survive for four months, while the Santa Cruz Surf Club kicked fundraising efforts into high gear. “He did a lot of things for the surfing community,” Stoner says, “that people didn’t know about.”

The O’Neill family is asking that people send any memorial contributions in support of Jack’s love of the oceans to oneillseaodyssey.org. A group of locals is encouraging Santa Cruzans to break out their favorite O’Neill’s apparel for a citywide “Wear a Jack O’Neill Shirt Day” this Friday, June 9. The family and company are also planning a possible paddle-out in his honor.


Jack of all Trades

We asked people to tell us their stories of O’Neill. Here are some highlights:

Dennis Judson:

When O’Neill tapped Dennis Judson to be CEO in the 1970s, he gave Judson free reign of daily operations, letting him do whatever he wanted—that is until O’Neill had a problem with one of his hot air balloons. “He would shut down a factory and have everyone work on his balloon” Judson remembers. “I said, ‘Jack, what are you doing?! We have to get all this neoprene out. You know, the balloon occupied the whole factory. It was basically a giant spinnaker. And when the balloon was there, it was hard to work on anything other than that goddamn balloon.”

Jeff Pappas:

Jeff Pappas’ father Joe was O’Neill’s second employee at the Cowell Surf Shop. A longtime family friend, Pappas raves about the entrepreneur’s ability to think “three steps ahead” of everyone else. But his favorite story is a time in the early 1990s, when the two were sitting in an airport in San Diego preparing to fly home. O’Neill spotted two Catholic school girls and asked them what books they were reading. O’Neill had read all those same religious texts himself, prompting a deeply philosophical conversation before takeoff. “It was incredible how much he could communicate on so many different levels,” Pappas says. “So humble.”

Jon Foster

A former member of the O’Neill surf team, Jon Foster remembers one afternoon at the harbor, seeing O’Neill on a boat with sons, Pat and Mike, in the mid-60s. O’Neill taxied over toward Foster and called out, asking him to join them aboard. But as the teenager stepped one foot off the dock, O’Neill slammed the vessel into reverse. “Bam. Right in the water,” Foster recalls, chuckling at the prank. “He thought that was great fun. I knew I was a part of something when he could joke with me like that.”

Randy Gray:

Randy Gray’s parents, Bill and Jimmie Jean, used to hang out with O’Neill and his first wife Marjorie when they still lived in San Francisco. They ran with a crowd that included baseball great Joe DiMaggio, Randy says. His dad and O’Neill used to surf together in the days when watermen wore wool sweaters to stay warm. (A good sweater lasted a few waves until it got wet and waterlogged, forcing surfers to paddle ashore.) Then O’Neill came up with the idea of foam suits to keep surfers comfortable, suggesting Bill take out a mortgage on his house to invest in the business. Bill politely passed on the business venture and never lived it down. Randy says, “When he got older, he laughed about that: ‘Yeah, I told Jack, You’re full of shit!’” Although he was a good sport about it, O’Neill clearly got the last laugh.

Larry Dunham:

When Larry Dunham’s brother Roger joined the O’Neill surf team, the honor came with a surfboard. Larry remembers going to Pleasure Point with his brother to check out the surf at Pleasure Point in the mid-60s. Larry says he advised Roger not to leave his brand new board in the back of the pickup truck while they walked across the street, but he did it anyway. And when they came back a couple minutes later, the board was gone. “We were really blown away,” Larry says, “so we go back to the shop, and Jack said, ‘Roger, just pick out another one.’ He was that kind of guy.”

Tom Ralston:

Tom Ralston remembers one night he spent with O’Neill’s second eldest son, Mike, drinking at the Crow’s Nest. They finally got back around 3:30 a.m. to O’Neill’s home on East Cliff, where they were going to spend the night and where O’Neill had a trampoline that he loved using for exercise. “We were pretty lit when we went to bed,” Ralston says, “and Jack was on the trampoline at 5:30 that morning, and he was jumping on the trampoline to John Philip Sousa music.” The sound blaring marching band sounds rattled Ralston hard. To this day, he wonders if O’Neill was trying to screw with him and maybe teach him sort of lesson—maybe that “the early bird gets the worm,” Ralston says, “and if you’re going to be up until 3:30, you’re also going to pay a price.”

Suzanne Haley:

From her days working in the company, Suzanne Haley remembers one day O’Neill took everyone out sailing in his catamaran, departing from the Santa Cruz Harbor, en route for Monterey. As he pulled up to an end tie along the dock, the harbormaster barked that he couldn’t park there. The two men squabbled back and forth, with O’Neill repeatedly yelling back that he was only going to be there a minute while he grabbed a quick part for his boat in the shop. Then O’Neill took the whole team out for a long, fancy lunch and ordered a few bottles of wine. “That was Jack,” Haley says.

Drew Kampion:

Some remember O’Neill for his fondness for a special libation. “When Bruce Brown—you know, he’s the director of The Endless Summer—would come to town, Jack would sponsor his showings. The minute Bruce arrived, the martinis would start pouring,” says Drew Kampion, who ran an advertising agency that had O’Neill’s company as a client in the 1970s. “Jack was quite the party guy and an exuberant guy.” Later when Kampion penned O’Neill’s biography, he fondly recalls sitting on O’Neill’s couch with him for hours beside giant windows, as waves rolled in around him, from the Hook to Pleasure Point. “It was such a wonderful time,” Kampion says. “He was such an authentic guy. He still is, because he will always stay and remain in the present tense and keep going no matter what anyone else does after.”


Update 06/08/17: We originally misreported the name of the O’Neill CEO during the 1970s as being Dennis Johnson. His name is Dennis Judson.

News Editor at |

Jacob, the news editor at Good Times, won the 2014 award for best local government coverage from the California Newspaper Publishers Association. A longtime basketball and football fanatic, Jacob has evolved into a shameless fair weather fan and band wagoner for hot West Coast sports teams. He also enjoys arguing with others about where to find the best burrito in town.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Brian rall

    June 8, 2017 at 1:57 am

    I remember moving to Santa Cruz in 1977 fresh out of high school from corona del mar. My first job was working for oneill at his wetsuit factory on 41st age glueing wetsuits together. I remember mike his son going into the back of the factory to work on da boot booties. Soon he gave me a pair to try out. At first they were hard to get used to but my feet said I love these things. I then got promoted to sewing up the suits which included the animal skin. Jack would drop by occasionally to check things out and everyone was in awe.he was a great man with lots of love who will be missed dearly. Aloha from Kauai

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