As a paddle out is being planned for July 9th to honor the life of surfing legend Jack O’Neill, mourners continue to leave flowers at his Santa Cruz home. That’s where he died last Friday surrounded by family. He was 94-years-old.
The low fence in front of his Pleasure Point neighborhood home is covered with bouquets of flowers, thank you notes, and other tokens from people who stopped by to pay tribute to him.
“I think it’s beautiful. I think it feels really like Jack O'Neill was part of our community,” says Mireille Horton after tying a bouquet of pink daisies to one of the posts.
O’Neill lived in the house since 1959. He moved to Santa Cruz from San Francisco where he owned a surf shop. That’s where he also pioneered what would become the modern day wetsuit. He was motivated by the desire to surf longer.
It used neoprene fabric to keep surfers warm in colder waters. Before the wetsuit became standard, surfing in the colder waters meant risking hypothermia.
Diver and surfer Joe Ruiz wears one. He came by the memorial to pay his respects.
“Neoprene, I mean real neoprene, when it first came out when, I was a kid, helped me get out in the ocean. To be ingenuous enough about putting something together to keep you insulated from the cold water, and all that good stuff, was pretty revolutionary,” says Ruiz.
“From a cold water standpoint, Jack allowed surfing to evolve. To become more competitive,” says surfing historian Kim Stoner. “It opened it up to more people to try and become surfers.”
Stoner was also longtime friend of Jack O’Neill. “Yeah you see I knew Jack before he had the eye patch,” says Stoner.
O’Neill started wearing the patch after a surfboard struck him in the eye. It became a signature look for him along with his grizzled beard. Behind that tough exterior, Stoner says O’Neill was a kind person and a straight shooter.
“Jack knew how to take his idea and run with it, created an empire basically. The wetsuit empire,” says Stoner.
He named that empire O’Neill. What started as a couple of surf shacks with wetsuits and surfboards grew into a worldwide surfing brand.
But Jack O’Neill also left a legacy of ocean stewardship. In 1996, he founded O’Neill Sea Odyssey with his son Tim. The hand-on program takes students out in the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary by catamaran to learn about marine life.
“Jack followed Sea Odyssey’s progress very closely. It was something that he was very, very proud of,” says Dan Haifley, Executive Director of O’Neill Sea Odyssey.
“Jack also innately understood, and this is very important, that if you get people into the ocean, into the water, they’re likely to become stewards of it. They’re more like to want to protect it,” he continues.
Jack O’Neill will be honored with a paddle out on Sunday, July 9th at 11:00am at Pleasure Point. The paddle out is a surfing tradition where friends and family, in part, take their boards into the ocean, circle up and hold hands.
O’Neill was preceded in death by his wife, Marjorie, and son, Mike. He is survived by his second wife, six children, six grandchildren and an extended ocean family sporting his name on their wetsuits.