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Bill Meistrell, 77; Helped Revolutionize Diving and Surfing With Light Neoprene Body Glove Wetsuit

Times Staff Writer

Introduced in the early 1950s, wetsuits flopped among surfers, who saw the uncomfortable rubber skins as more suitable for wimps than wave riders. Enter Bill Meistrell, a dive-shop owner who used a synthetic called neoprene to create a lighter, more flexible suit.

At first, his suits were sold under the label Thermocline until his friend Duke Boyd, a founder of Hang Ten, said the name was terrible.

“What’s so good about your suit?” Boyd asked.

“Well, it fits like a glove,” Meistrell replied. “And he said, ‘Well let’s call it Body Glove.’ ”

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Meistrell, whose Body Glove wetsuits helped revolutionize surfing and deep-sea diving, died Tuesday from Parkinson’s disease at his home in Rancho Palos Verdes, his family said. He was 77.

“He was the guy who makes the boat run faster, the machines run better. His specialty was making things happen,” said Meistrell’s twin brother, Bob. “We had a fantastic time all of our lives.”

Body Glove was co-founded by the Meistrell brothers in 1965. The business, an offshoot of a surf shop partnership that the brothers bought into for $1,800 in 1953, now does more than $200 million a year in business, said Bill Meistrell’s son, who is also named Bill and is a Body Glove vice president. “He made a huge impact on the surf industry because he was one of the first wetsuit innovators and brought wetsuit technology into the modern era,” said Jennifer Kelly, a spokeswoman for the Surf Industry Manufacturers Assn.

As Missouri farm boys, the twins were drawn to water, cobbling together their first dive helmet out of a five-gallon vegetable oil can, a pane of glass and tar. When they moved to Manhattan Beach in 1944, they bought their first genuine dive helmet for $25 from a neighbor -- the original owner had drowned while wearing it.

The pair got into surfing just as balsa boards were starting to catch on, early enough to have their names added in 2004 to the Surfers Walk of Fame in Hermosa Beach. Like other surfers, they wore oil-soaked sweaters to fend off the cold.

Fresh out of El Segundo High School, they worked as county lifeguards, but Bill Meistrell was soon drafted into the Army and served in the Korean War. His brother also was drafted into the Army but was stationed at Ft. Ord, Calif. It was the only period in their lives that the brothers spent much time apart.

Back home in 1953, a friend of Bill Meistrell’s named Beverly Morgan asked him if he wanted to become a partner in his Redondo Beach sports shop, Dive N’ Surf. Morgan owned the business with pioneering surfboard maker Hap Jacobs, but Jacobs wanted to move on. Meistrell agreed to the deal, but only if his brother could come along.

“What was funny about Bev is that he used my surfboard while I was in the Army, and he stole Billy’s girlfriend while he was in Korea and married her,” Bob Meistrell said. “A guy named Beverly? I told Bill, ‘We can beat him up.’ He turned out to be the best partner we ever had.”

Morgan had been making wetsuits since 1951, based on designs and research by Hugh Bradner, a UC Berkeley physicist. Bradner had studied the subject for the Navy, which wanted to make underwater work more comfortable and productive for its divers, according to “The Encyclopedia of Surfing” (2003) by Matt Warshaw.

As a sideline, Dive N’ Surf sold the occasional custom wetsuit, but sales took off only after the brothers started making them out of neoprene.

“My brother was responsible for the real light, stretchy-soft material -- that’s what got surfers into it,” Bob Meistrell said.

To combat the idea that wetsuits were unmasculine, Morgan helped organize a gathering in 1959 of top surf teams, who received free wetsuits and were promptly sent into the water. Two weeks later, Dive N’ Surf had 2,500 wetsuit orders, according to “The Encyclopedia of Surfing.”

The shop was hired to make custom wetsuits for the television show “Sea Hunt” (1957-61) and taught its star, Lloyd Bridges, and members of his family to dive. The brothers also taught actors Gary Cooper, Charlton Heston and Richard Harris, among others, and made a custom wetsuit for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Eventually, the brothers bought out Morgan and launched Body Glove, which would succeed beyond “the wilder of our wilder dreams,” Bob Meistrell said. The family still owns 95% of the company.

The brand has expanded far beyond wetsuits to include sportswear, swimsuits, orthopedic braces and products that aren’t linked to water such as cellphone sleeves, CD holders and camera cases.

“We’re like a little Walt Disney Co., without the theme park, only we’ve got a big ocean,” said the junior Bill Meistrell.

The next generation -- there are five children between the two brothers -- began taking over the company in the late 1970s as the founders became more involved in marketing and outdoor pursuits.

Bill Meistrell entered the world one day earlier than his identical twin, on July 30, 1928, in Boonville, Mo. The boys were the youngest of seven children of John and Mary Elizabeth Meistrell.

When the twins were 4, their investment banker father was murdered by a former business partner who owed him a great deal of money. Their mother remarried, but the family moved west in the 1940s, partly to escape her second husband, Bob Meistrell said.

Always the adventurers, the brothers owned a submarine and were part of the team that dived to the deep wreck of the paddle-wheeler Brother Jonathan, which sank off Northern California in 1865; they helped recover more than $5 million in gold coins.

Over the years, the twins owned 45 boats together, the most recent being the Disappearance, a 72-foot yacht with huge Body Glove logos.

Bill Meistrell was married to Lori, with whom he had his son and a daughter, Julie. They divorced after nearly 40 years. In addition to his brother and children, he is survived by his second wife, Jackie, four grandchildren and four stepgrandchildren.

“He loved what he did, the adventure,” his son said. “I never, ever heard him say, ‘Oh, I’ve got to go to work.”

Though he hadn’t surfed in at least a decade, Bill Meistrell last went diving about two weeks ago in his pool at home. About two months ago, he and his brother went about 70 feet underwater in a decompression chamber.

“They were so happy,” Bill’s son said. “It was like watching two little kids playing in a fort.”


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