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…