Bill Holden, a well-known surfboard shaper who helped mold the sport into what it is today, died recently from a heart attack. I had the pleasure of meeting Holden a few months back at this year’s Surfboard Builders Hall of Fame. His smile was ear-to-ear as he talked about his early days shaping board for Holden Surfboards back in 1955, when his creations would go for $50 a piece. These days, some of the classic boards can go for thousands of dollars. Holden, creator of Holden Surfboards on Beach Boulevard in Huntington Beach, was a good friend of famous surfboard shaper Dale Velzy, among other surfing icons.
Surfboard shaper Bob “the Greek” Bolen bought his first custom board from Holden, later buying his first foam blank from him. “He was kind of worried I would go into the business. I told him I wouldn’t, that I just wanted it to build myself a board,” Bolen recalled, chuckling. Bolen did go on to become a shaper, but the two would help each other with their work over the years.
Holden held a lot of pride in the artistry and detail that goes into creating each board. “It’s like sculpting. It just gets in your blood,” he said during an interview a few months back.
Holden, a Laguna Beach resident, was such a force in the shaping world that he was the first inductee into the Surfboard Builders Hall of Fame back in 2000. The award was given to him at his 70th birthday party, a surprise to all the guests. “Bill and his wife were so touched, both of them started crying,” recalled friend Mike Ester. Holden has attended every Hall of Fame ceremony since it started, clutching his award through the day and chatting with surfers who admire his work. “He was such a sweet, sweet man. He always had a smile on his face,” Ester said.
Holden was an active member of the Longboard Collector Club...
Holden was loading up a car for a Super Bowl party when he had the heart attack. “Bill was a good man, and really enjoyed life. He will be missed by everyone who ever came in contact with him,” said Roger Mann, president of the Longboard Collector Club.
This is another one of those columns that I do not want to write and news that I do not want to report. Another surfing legend has passed into the big point break in the sky: Huntington Beach's own super-star surfboard builder Bill Holden. This dude was one of the original surfboard builders in Orange County and one of the most fun and stoked people you could ever want to come into contact with. Everyone he met came away with the feeling of warmth and stoke from this man, including myself...
He was someone whom I looked up to when I was a kid and a guy whom I came into contact with from time to time over the years. Every time I saw him, it made me happy. He was one of those dudes who just had a light about him and a very contagious smile and laugh...
Bob "The Greek" Bolan knew a lot about Bill and much of the history that went along with the fact that he had been building boards right here in Huntington Beach since the late '40s. It was he and Mike "da Ratt" Ester who nominated him for the Hall of Fame. His shop was on Beach Boulevard. He also was a dear friend of the late great Dale Velzy. This is an e-mail I got this morning from da Ratt:
"I sat down with him when we gave him his award at his 70th birthday party in Laguna at his home. It was an amazing experience. I talked with him for about a half hour on his life history.
"Man, he was an innovator of some pretty cool designs and shapes in the industry. Nobody (about 150 or so) at the party knew anything about the induction. We wanted the first recipient (it was in 2000) to be originally from right here in Surf City.
"We set it up that the person inducted then picks the next inductee. We figured he would pick Dale Velzy, which he did. Then of course, Dale picked Hap Jacobs, and so on.
"Let me tell ya, he was sure surprised and totally stoked to receive the award. He has come to every award function since the first one and has brought his award with him every time. Now that is stoked!
"He always had a smile on his face. What a sweet, sweet and happy guy. If any of you were at that 70th birthday party, you will remember how stoked he was to receive that award. You know he said that he was extremely bummed that Dale Velzy went to surf heaven before him.
"Bill nominated Dale to be the next inductee out of sheer respect and love for the other surfboard legend. They were dear friends. Well, now they are together and can talk stories for a long, long time!
"I'm going to miss that icon. Greek and I will make sure that his award will be present at the next award presentation. So much history, and such a great man.
"Aloha Bill, "'Mickey Rat' (Mike Ester)"
This came from Roger Mann of the Surfboard Collector Club: "Bill was an icon of the industry and a wonderful and cheerful man. Bill and his family were very active in the Collector Club and did a wonderful job with the big barbecues at Doheny State Park for our large annual event.
"I never saw Bill without an ear-to-ear smile on his face, and he would constantly remind the membership to call him 'Bill' rather than 'Mr. Holden.' He always told me, 'Mr. Holden is my dad.' Eventually, I grew accustomed to calling him 'Bill,' even though I always respectfully referred to him as 'Mr. Holden' ...
"I can pass on that Bill apparently had a heart attack as he was getting ready for a Super Bowl party with his family in Mission Viejo. Bill collapsed while loading his truck with goodies for the party. Steve Hammon, reports that he went quickly: 'He just went to sleep.'
"Bill was a good man and really enjoyed life. He will be missed by everyone who ever came in contact with him."
And lastly, this is from Bill's son Brad: "Our family is having a very hard time with his passing, even though we know that is the last thing he would have wanted. It has been a pleasure to have been raised by and to have known such a wonderful man.
"He touched everybody's lives in different ways and because of that I know he will always be remembered. He would want us to remember him with laughter and not tears as he always had a smile on his face."
On Super Bowl Sunday, legendary surfboard maker Bill Holden was loading up his latest creation, a sleek square-tailed thruster decorated with a lyrical line drawing of a surfer girl. The Canyon Acres resident planned to show off the newly finished board at his son's annual football party. He never made it. After placing the board into the bed of his truck, Holden, 77, collapsed, succumbing to a massive heart attack.
The founder of Holden Surfboards of Huntington Beach, Holden first started making surfboards in the mid-50s and was instrumental in defining the shape and look of the classic long board. Holden was so instrumental in the world of surfboard making that on his 70th birthday, May 20, 2000, he became the first inductee of the International Surfboard Builders Hall of Fame, created to honor icons of the surfing industry.
Each of his boards is considered a work of art. "I've seen hundreds of his surfboards and no two are alike," said Vito Cachia, a foot and ankle surgeon from San Juan Capistrano who owns seven Holdens. "Each board is the embodiment of his personal attention to that board and the person he was making it for. He put his heart and soul into every board he made."
Besides being beautiful to look at, "fun" is the word that best describes how a Holden board surfs, Cachia said. "They're wave magnets."
Born in 1930 in Covington, Ky., Holden and his family moved to California in 1947. He started surfing at San Onofre in the 1950s right after he got out of the Marine Corp after having served in the Korean War. In 1955, while working for Glasspar Boats, he shaped his first board out of Styrofoam, using a foam flotation bun. While it surfed, the foam board broke easily and swelled in the sun.
Looking around for a better wave tool, Holden found Dale Velzy who was selling his balsa wood boards for $87. Not wanting to spend that much money, Holden, a lifelong do-it-yourselfer, traded two tires that his father had recapped, for a blank. He shaped it on the beach of his favorite break, Old Man's, taking suggestions from old timers standing around. Each surfboard was embossed with the fun-loving Holden logo.
After that first encounter, Holden and Velzy, who by the 1960s became one of the world's most prolific surfboard manufacturers, became life-long friends. Velzy died in 2005, also at the age of 77.
While attending Orange Coast College, Holden set up a board building operation in his dad's garage in Garden Grove. During the 1960s, he was shaping as many as eight long boards a day at his shop on Beach Boulevard. According to his longtime friend, Steve Hammon of Mission Viejo, Holden wasn't motivated by money, but by quality and whether or not his creations pleased the recipients. While his contemporaries charged $600 to $800 for a board, Holden's price tags would read $300, though he'd put more than 20 hours into a project. In recent years, he often simply gave the boards away. On his 50th birthday, Hammon received a black board "shiny like a Corvette" inscribed with RIP across the top. "He was a giver," Hammon said. Cachia, too, received a gift from Holden on his 50th. Made of foam, palm, agave and redwood, Cachia said the board, which hangs in his office,is "absolutely beautiful. It is a token of friendship that I never have quite gotten over. I am so honored to have had him as a friend." Embossed on each board is Holden's logo: four grinning gremlins racing towards the surf, boards in hand.
His motto: "Everywhere…There's a Holden board" led to ads in Surfer magazine in which his boards would be pictured in a pit of crocodiles, in bed with a woman and atop a skyscraper, anywhere except in the ocean. In the '70s when long boards gave way to shorter boards, business declined. For a time Holden manufactured boards and bras in Puerto Rico and developed a plastic wax package that could be closed tight after use, preventing surfboard wax from melting in the car glove box.
Until he retried in 1992, Holden worked as a machinist for a print shop in Santa Ana. A clever craftsman, Holden could make something out of what others considered junk. Before the Laguna fire of 1993 destroyed it, Holden's shop was an inverted skateboarding bowl that he lined with fiberglass.
In the '50s Holden and friends built the ultimate Baja vehicle, The Duck, an amphibious marine vehicle that they topped with a San Clemente school bus. The remains of the vehicle, which made countless surf safaris to remote Baja beaches, are currently rusting in the sands of Bahia de los Angeles on Baja's Sea of Cortez.
According to his son, Brad, of Mission Viejo, Holden was a "die hard Marine" who always wore his dog tags and a Marine Corp ring which he made out of gold he had panned near Sacramento.
Holden enjoyed a resurgence of appreciation in his work when in the late 80s long boards again became popular. He continued making boards for family and friends up until his passing. "It's like sculpting," Holden said at last year's gathering of the legendary shapers at Sunset Beach. "It just gets into your blood."
Inside his shop on Canyon Acres where he lived with his wife, Melanie, for the past 30 years, Holden left his glasses on a partially shaped foam blank he planned to work on the following day. "He was just going away for a minute to eat chili and be with his son," Melanie said. "He worked everyday in his shop."