When Jack O’Neill began riding the waves about 50 years ago, surfers would cover themselves in petroleum jelly and tape wool sweaters to their bodies to try to stay warm.
But thanks to O’Neill’s workshop experiments, which resulted in the first functional surfing wetsuit in 1952, the sport became accessible year-round and surfers could abandon their soggy sweaters.
For this revolutionary step, and for later building one of the largest businesses in the surf wear industry, O’Neill, 75, was honored Thursday as one of five 1998 inductees into Huntington Beach’s Surfing Walk of Fame.
Before about 250 surfing fans outside Jack’s Surfboards at Pacific Coast Highway and Main Street, granite sidewalk markers were unveiled honoring O’Neill, surf pioneer John Heath “Doc” Ball, surf champion Peter “PT” Townend, the late local hero Chuck Dent, and woman of the year, Frieda Zamba.
Two others were placed on the honor roll: Ann Beasley, World Ambassador of the Huntington Beach International Surfing Museum, and Natalie A. Kotsch, who helped establish the museum.
“This is beyond my fondest dreams,” said O’Neill, who joins such legendary names on the walk as Duke Kahanamoku, considered the father of surfing, and current surfing champions such as Tom Curren and Shaun Tomson. “When I started working with wetsuits in the ‘50s, I never would have believed it.”
The Walk of Fame was established in 1994 to recognize surfing’s heritage and honor its top achievers. It now contains 28 squares. About five names are added each year in the categories of woman of the year, surf champion, surfing culture, local hero and Surf Pioneer.
Zamba, a four-time world champion in the 1980s and one of the most accomplished women in the sport’s history, called her Walk of Fame nomination a “tremendous honor.”
“This is such a memorable place for me in my surfing career,” she said of the city. “I’m proud that this [marker] will be here forever.”
Townend, an Australia native who lives in Huntington Beach, was credited by his peers for giving the sport a professionalism that it did not enjoy in the early years.
“He really helped make surfing a professional sport,” said former pro surfer and longtime friend Wayne “Rabbit” Bartholomew.
“One of the things that he did was carry a little notebook to all the competitions around the world and rank surfers and surf events. Of course,” Bartholomew smiled, “he’d always be ranked as No. 1.”
Townend did earn the title of world surfing champion in 1976.
Fighting back tears at the podium, Townend, 46, thanked his parents for encouraging him to surf, even in the days before lucrative contracts and corporate sponsorship.
“They taught me to always be true to your beliefs, and if you try hard enough, you can get there,” he said.
Dent, who died in 1980 of a heart attack at age 35, was noted for his salesmanship and larger-than-life character in the community with his “Local Hero” honor.
“He best represented what Surf City was all about in the ‘60s and ‘70s--the good, the bad and the ugly,” said Mike Morgan, a former pro surfer who works in the surf shop Dent established.
Surf pioneer “Doc” Ball, who lives in Eureka and was unable to attend, was credited with helping establish surfing on California’s coast as early as the 1930s.