During the past two weeks, the surfing world has lost two of its most influential personalities. Surfer, artist, filmmaker and publisher John Severson died on May 26, 2017 at the age of 83. Surfer and surf products innovator Jack O’Neill passed away at age 94 on June 2.Both made incredible contributions to our lifestyle.
John Severson was born in Pasadena, California in 1933, and moved with his family to San Clemente at the age of 13. He immediately took up surfing, painting and photographing the waves of southern Orange County.
Severson went on to complete undergraduate and masters degrees in art education from Chico State and Cal State Long Beach. The paintings he produced during this time have been considered by many to be the origin of surf art.
In 1956, John found himself in the military, stationed in Honolulu, and assigned to the army surf team. No doubt he could have been handed a worse assignment! He released his first surf movie - simply called Surf - in 1958, joining such icons as Bud Browne, Greg Noll and Bruce Brown as some of surfing’s first filmmakers. After returning to California in 1959, he produced two more films, the second of which he named Surf Fever. To promote this 1960 release, Severson put together a 36-page magazine called The Surfer. It included black and white photos, some of his artwork, a fiction article, and a handful of ads.And Surfer Magazine was born…
By 1971, the magazine’s circulation had grown to over 100,000 readers. But its success came at the sacrifice of surfing and painting, two things John loved most. Seeking a simpler life, Severson sold Surfer and moved with his family to Maui. As John himself said, “I wanted to live an easier life – not as a starving artist, but as a semi-starving artist. Sometimes plans like that don’t work out, but this one did.”
Author/editor Sam George summarized it well… "Before John Severson, there was no surf media, no surf industry, and no surf culture.” Thank you, John. You did so much to define the surf lifestyle through film, art, photography and the printed word.
Jack O’Neill was born in Denver, Colorado in 1923. He lived in Southern California and Oregon before moving to San Francisco in 1949 to pursue a degree in liberal arts. A bodysurfer since the late ‘30s, his move to the Bay Area and its cold water was inspiration enough to begin the experiments that led to O’Neill Wetsuits and the modern wetsuit. Well-known Santa Cruz local and big wave surfer Peter Mel once described O’Neill as “the man who brought comfort to cold-water surfing.”
Known simply as “Surf Shop”, Jack opened his first surf retail location in San Francisco in 1952. Within months, he had produced his first prototype wetsuits, which weren’t much more than vests with pieces of neoprene sewn in.O’Neill Wetsuits – a leading manufacturer of wetsuits and sportswear, was born.
Jack opened a second surf shop in 1959 – this time in Santa Cruz – and O’Neill’s wetsuit business continued to prosper. By 1970, the company had produced the first fullsuit for the surf market, introducing a new level of warmth and comfort to the sport.
In 1971, O’Neill lost sight in his left eye while testing another innovative surf product he was developing – the surf leash. Ironically, Jack’s son Pat had been credited with inventing the leash only a year before. The distinctive patch Jack wore over his eye since the accident became his signature; it would even become a feature of the O’Neill company logo. As Peter Mel once said, Jack “had a great distinctive voice. And of course, the eye patch. He wore it well.”
O’Neill stepped down as CEO of is company in 1985, with son Pat taking the helm. Jack remained active both with the company and in the water for many years to come. Mel described O’Neill as “an amazing guy.An innovator, with contributions as significant as anyone in our industry.” And in 1999, Surfer Magazine named him one of the “25 Most Influential Surfers of the Century.” Thank you, Jack, for all you did for surfing…