Jack O’Neill, who pioneered the wetsuit and opened one of the world’s first surf shops, has died at this home in Santa Cruz. He was 94.
“Surrounded by family, Jack was as soulful and encouraging as always, reiterating his love for his family, appreciation for a life well lived, his hopes for his friends and the oceans he loved, all within the familiarity of his oceanfront home of over 50 years, with the famous waves of his beloved Pleasure Point beach lapping at his deck,” the O’Neill brand wrote on its website.
O’Neill was born in Denver, CO and moved with his family to Long Beach, CA. He acquired a love for the beach early in his youth in Southern California. He attended the University of Portland in Oregon, where he received a degree in business.
Following service in the U.S. Navy during World War II, O’Neill married Marjorie Bennett and they moved in the early 1950s to Ocean Beach in San Francisco, CA. he immediately began experimenting on his kitchen table with various materials designed to protect against the frigid ocean water in Northern California. He said, “I just wanted to surf longer.”
By the 50s Jack had both invented the first surfing and bodysurfing wetsuits and opened his first surf shop near Ocean Beach. He also coined “Surf Shop,” a term for which he later received a Registered US Trademark. At that time O’Neill famously remarked, “All my friends said, ‘O’Neill: you will sell to five friends on the beach and then you will be out of business’”.
Inspired by the growing surf scene, O’Neill moved with his growing family 75 miles south to Santa Cruz, and opened his next surf shop there, where the Dream Inn stands today. Shortly thereafter he began making surfboards, promoting the first surf movies from Bruce Brown and producing wetsuits for the expanding population of surfers in Santa Cruz and throughout California.
The surfing craze soon expanded way beyond California, and O’Neill rode that wave better and longer than almost anyone in the surf industry. O’Neill viewed what he did as a passion, and was more surprised than anyone that the business grew to the point that it did.
O’Neill and his wife, Marjorie, with the help of their family, grew the business. Along the way he traveled the world and became internationally known as a surfer, an airplane and balloon pilot, sailor, fisherman, and adventurer.
O’Neill was most recognizable for his eye patch and his beard, often seen driving around Santa Cruz in his convertible Jaguar. The eye patch resulted from his surfboard hitting his left eye while riding a wave.
By 1980 O’Neill had become a thriving international business and the world’s largest ocean recreation wetsuit designer and manufacturer. As worldwide interest in surfing exploded, so did the O’Neill surf brand in Australia, Europe, Japan, and beyond.
For his proudest achievement, in 1996, O’Neill established O’Neill Sea Odyssey (OSO), a marine and environmental education program using his personal Team O’Neill catamaran, taking over 30 children at a time into the newly designated Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, along with the dedication of a coast-side classroom and laboratory building in the Santa Cruz Harbor, which he built in 1965. He played an instrumental role in the development of the harbor.
Now over 20 years old, the O’Neill Sea Odyssey program is one of the largest of its kind in the world, having hosted nearly 100,000 school-aged children. Remarking on OSO, O’Neill said, “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.”
O’Neill has left behind many dear friends and was predeceased by wife Marjorie in 1972, and son Mike in 2012, and is survived by his wife Noriko, daughters Cathi, Bridget and Shawne, sons Pat, Tim (Lisa) and Jack Jr., and grandchildren Uma, Riley, Connor, Bridget, Phoenix and Kodiak.
Memorial contributions in support of his love of the oceans may be sent to http://oneillseaodyssey.org.
Photo courtesy O’Neill