Jack O’Neill, whose extraordinary life as a Navy pilot turned legendary surfer and entrepreneur yielded one of the most game-changing technologies in the sport of surfing, died on June 2 of natural causes at the age of 94 in Santa Cruz, California, his company announced.
"Surrounded by family, Jack was as soulful and encouraging as always, reiterating his love for his family, appreciation for a life well lived, his hopes for his friends and the oceans he loved, all within the familiarity of his oceanfront home of over 50 years, with the famous waves of his beloved Pleasure Point beach lapping at his deck," the company said on its website.
An icon among surfers, O’Neill cut an unmistakable figure with his thick beard, unruly hair, and eyepatch, which he wore since 1972, when his surfboard struck his left eye while he was riding a wave. He started his company, O’Neill Inc., in 1952 near Ocean Beach in San Francisco, California, and coined and patented the name “Surf Shop.”
But his most important contribution to the sport was the creation and mass production of the neoprene wetsuit, an insulated garment that traps a thin layer of water against the skin, which is then warmed by body heat, allowing people to surf in frigid waters and in all seasons.
While other companies were experimenting with the technology at the time, O’Neill is widely credited with being the wetsuit’s commercial pioneer.
O’Neill wetsuits revolutionized surfing as they grew in popularity, appealing to surfers around the world with the slogan, “It’s always summer on the inside.” He is also credited with helping change the image of surfers from marginalized beach bums to bonafide athletes, according to The New York Times.
Born in Denver in 1923, O’Neill moved with his family to Long Beach, California, when he was young. It was there, The Times writes, that his lifelong “love affair” with the sea began. After serving as a Navy pilot during World War II, he graduated from the University of Portland in Oregon with a degree in business.
By the 1980s, O’Neill Inc., which relocated to Santa Cruz in the ’50s, had become one of the largest — if not the largest — ocean recreation wetsuit designers and manufacturers in the world. For all the company’s success, however, O’Neill never lost his renegade spirit.
“Along the way Jack traveled the world and became internationally known as a surfer, an airplane and balloon pilot, sailor, fisherman, and adventurer,” his company said on its website.
Until his death, O’Neill maintained that his proudest achievement was the establishment of the O’Neill Sea Odyssey, a marine and environmental education program that educates children on the importance of ocean preservation, which he founded in 1996.
“The ocean is alive and we’ve got to take care of it,” O’Neill once said. “There’s no doubt in my mind that the O’Neill Sea Odyssey is the best thing I’ve ever done.”