Obituary: Wetsuit Pioneer Jack O’Neill, 94

Jack O’Neill, founder of the surf brand O’Neill, died on June 2. He was 94.

The Colorado-born and Long Beach, Calif.–raised O’Neill had a lifelong love of the ocean. After serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II, O’Neill and his wife, Marjorie, settled in San Francisco, where O’Neill began experimenting with materials to protect the avid surfer from the chilly water off Ocean Beach. His design began as a vest and expanded to a two-piece version until finally becoming the familiar full wet suit, which has been a staple for surfers ever since. O’Neill wet suits carry the company’s motto: “It’s always summer on the inside.” By the mid-1950s, O’Neill had developed wetsuits for surfing and bodysurfing and opened a surf shop near Ocean Beach. According to the company, O’Neill later received a trademark for the term “surf shop.” As the business grew, O’Neill relocated to Santa Cruz, where he opened the O’Neill Surf Shop and began making surfboards and supplying wet suits to a growing surfing community.

Over the years, O’Neill continued to surf, sail, fish and fly—both planes and hot-air balloons. A collision with a board while surfing left O’Neill with his signature eyepatch. O’Neill grew his business into an international concern that encompasses wet suits, swimwear and apparel. Today, the La Jolla Group in Irvine, Calif., holds the license for O’Neill clothing.

In 1996, he founded the O’Neill Sea Odys­sey marine and environmental education program that took children on tours of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary aboard the O’Neill catamaran. Since its inception, nearly 100,000 children have participated in the O’Neill Sea Odyssey program, which also includes a classroom and lab at the Santa Cruz harbor.

O’Neill was inducted into the International Surfing Hall of Fame in Huntington Beach, Calif., in 1991 and in the Huntington Beach Surfing Walk of Fame in 1998. He was named Waterman of the Year by the Surf Industry Manufacturers Association in 2000. In 2002 he received the Entrepreneur of the Year Award from Ernst & Young. On June 3, surfers participating in the 37th annual Sunshine Freestyle Surfabout on Carmel Beach in Carmel, Calif., observed a moment of silence in O’Neill’s honor.

O’Neill was predeceased by his wife Marjorie in 1972 and son Mike in 2012. He is survived by his second wife, Noriko; children Cathi, Bridget, Shawne, Pat, Tim, Lisa and Jack Jr.; and grandchildren Uma, Riley, Connor, Bridget, Phoenix and Kodiak.

Memorial contributions can be made to the O’Neill Sea Odyssey (http://oneillseaodyssey.org).