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The Legacy of Jack O’Neill

On June 2, 2017, Santa Cruz and the world lost a legend when Jack O’Neill passed away at the age of 94. An indelible part of Santa Cruz and the sport of surfing, O’Neill spent most of his life living and working just steps from Pleasure Point and was instrumental in the meteoric launch of surfing in California and around the globe.

Born in Denver, Colorado in 1923, Jack soon moved with his family to Long Beach, where his lifelong love of the ocean began. After getting his degree from the University of Oregon, Jack served as a pilot in the US Navy during World War II. Upon his return, he met and married Marjorie Bennett and the couple moved to Ocean Beach, San Francisco in the early 1950s.

Often referred to as the pioneer of the wetsuit, O’Neill was looking for something to wear in the frigid waters that would keep him warm. “I’m just a surfer who wanted to build something that would allow me to surf longer,” O’Neill was quoted as saying with regard to his design. And so the wetsuit was born from his passion as well as necessity. Although he never thought his invention would gain much traction outside of a small circle of local surfers, O’Neill opened his first “surf shop” in a garage in Ocean Beach. (O’Neill invented the phrase ‘surf shop’ and received a registered trademark for it some years later. He also began wearing his notable eye patch after an accident while testing a surfboard leash.)

As the popularity of surfing mounted, Jack and his family moved to Santa Cruz, where he opened another surf shop and also began designing and selling surfboards and other surfing paraphernalia. By 1980, the O’Neill brand had become synonymous with surfing as well as the world’s largest recreational wetsuit designer/manufacturer. The ocean sport was being enjoyed across the globe, including Australia, Japan and Europe, thanks to Jack’s personal passion. The O’Neill Coldwater Classic, the world-class annual surfing competition held at Steamer Lane, was named in his honor.

In addition to being a surfer and entrepreneur, Jack O’Neill was an ocean advocate and conservationist. In 1966, he and his son, Tim, created O’Neill Sea Odyssey (OSO), a marine and environmental education program. Using O’Neill’s private 65-foot catamaran, OSO offers school-aged children an interactive experience on the Monterey Bay in which they learn about marine life, our impact on the waters as well as how to preserve and protect the ocean. Since the program’s inception, it has become one of the largest of its kind, hosting over 100,000 children. O’Neill viewed the OSO as his greatest accomplishment, stating, “The ocean is alive and we’ve got to take care of it. There’s no doubt in my mind that the O’Neill Sea Odyssey is the best thing I’ve ever done.”

Jack O’Neill’s adventurous nature, environmental stewardship, dedication and entrepreneurial spirit embody the very essence of Santa Cruz. The mural at the entrance of the wharf commemorates his life: surfer, inventor, conservationist, optimist.

Jack’s son, Pat, continues to run the family business as he has for years. O’Neill Surf Shops are located on 41st Avenue, Cooper Street and at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk.

A Celebration of Life Paddle-Out is planned for Sunday, July 9th from 11am to 2pm at Pleasure Point Drive, Jack’s favorite beach.

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