Jack O'Neill was honored and celebrated with the designation of his original Surf Shop as a California Historical Point of Interest.
SANTA CRUZ -- Surfing icon Jack O'Neill, who will be 90 on Wednesday, is still amazed at the local lore and global empire that swelled from his 500-square-foot surf shop on Cowell Beach. Opened in 1959 when O'Neill moved from San Francisco, the shack became known as "boys town" -- a place where parents would drop their sons to ride waves all day. Although the shop started by the pioneer of foam surf boards and thermal wetsuits is long gone, its legend will be forever preserved through a new California Historical Point of Interest plaque marking the original site.
"I never in my wildest dreams ever thought any of this would happen," O'Neill told the Sentinel after a dedication event Monday. "I thought I would make a few boards and have somebody to surf with."
Several black-and-white photos of O'Neill are featured in a temporary paper mural put up with the plaque on a retaining wall separating the surf shop site from the Dream Inn. When he opened the place, O'Neill said town leaders -- whom he called 'city dads' -- didn't consider surfing a legitimate past time, let alone sport.
"They said, 'You're going to sell to five guys on the beach and be all out of business,'" O'Neill said.
But as Councilman David Terrazas told dozens gathered Monday: "How could our city dads get it so wrong?" Terrazas, who led efforts to gain state recognition for the surf shop, called O'Neill Wetsuits "a symbol for our coastal economy."
O'Neill and family members built the Santa Cruz-based company after the beach shop closed in the mid-1960s. O'Neill later also established the O'Neill Sea Odyssey education program featuring a 65-foot catamaran anchored at the Santa Cruz Small Craft Harbor.
Executive Director Dan Haifley noted the program has introduced 75,000 students to the wonders of Monterey Bay for free. O'Neill's historic arc has stretched from "boys' town to the world's largest classroom," Haifley said.
Engineer Mark Mesiti Miller, who worked on O'Neill's cliff side home in Pleasure Point, recalled the surfer's determination to remove posts obstructing his living room view of the ocean. Mesiti Miller said the tricky renovation demonstrated an unstoppable will to accomplish the improbable.
"Jack's imagination is clearly without limits," he said.
Studio Holloday designed the O'Neill plaque and artist Eric Zwierzynski worked on the photo mural, which the city hopes to replace with permanent, interpretive signs. Zwierzynski said it was an honor to pay tribute to patriarch of surfing culture in Santa Cruz.
"He is such a dude," he said.