Late alumnus Jack O’neill, surf pioneer, leaves legacy on Ocean Beach

There is no plaque or symbol of historical significance at the corner of Wawona Street and 46th Avenue in the Outer Sunset District of San Francisco. At that intersection, there is a vacant, gray house standing in the shadow of a new shopping center being built across the street.

Despite its unassuming architecture, this house could be a designated landmark. It’s the very place where Jack O’neill, a graduate of SF State’s Class of 1949, opened the door to his garage and called it the world’s first surf shop in 1952. Humble origins for what is now a 7 billion dollar industry.

As an avid surfer and swimmer at Ocean Beach, O’neill had a reputation for his pursuit of cold-water solutions. According to the “Encyclopedia of Surfing,” O’neill tried soaking wool sweaters in kerosene and surfing in military dry suits so that he could stay in the water longer. The problem was that the dry suits were made for scuba diving and not the rigorous motion of paddling. They were heavy, chafed and prone to filling up with water.

O’neill was boarding an airplane the first time he saw neoprene, a light-weight foam material. Shortly after that fateful flight, he began tailoring neoprene into jackets for surfers and bodysurfers to use at Ocean Beach.

His slogan, “It’s Always Summer on the Inside,” coupled with a successful trade show debut in 1956, where his children wore wetsuits in an ice-filled kiddy pool, made O’neill wetsuits the first iconic surf brand in California.

In the 1970s, Jack O’neill perfected the “full suit design,” allowing for surfers, swimmers and scuba divers to enjoy the water off northern California comfortably. Popularity in these activities has grown ever since.

SF State student Nat Burke is among the black-suited figures bobbing on the horizon at Ocean Beach. Burke also interns for the Surfrider Foundation, a non-profit organization that fights for a cleaner ocean.

Burke said it’s difficult to get people to care about the ocean without them seeing beneath the surface.

“Wetsuits make accessing the ocean bearable in cooler climates around the world so that we can enjoy, observe, study and protect these ecosystems from our impact,” said Burke.

When Burke isn’t surfing, volunteering at a beach cleanup, or studying philosophy at SF State, he works for Patagonia. Recently, the eco-friendly company started selling wetsuits made of Yulex rubber grown from Hevea trees in Guatemala, a sustainable alternative to neoprene.

Jack O’neill was 94 years old when he passed away on June 2, 2017 in Santa Cruz, California. Paddle out ceremonies were held around the world in his honor. Surfers came together to form a circle  hand-in-hand as a way of saying “thank you.”

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