Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Jeff White (1938-2010)

Jeff White, 1938-2010
Courtesy Photo
Jeff White, 1938-2010

Jeff White, 1938-2010

Surfer, Board Shaper, Surf-n-Wear Founder

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Surfers have a way of lavishing the word “legend” upon one another when an individual has performed well or achieved something noteworthy within the surfing community. If a surfer is able to repeat the act or effort year after year, the legend grows even larger and seems to take on a life of its own. Jeffrey D. White, a longtime resident of Carpinteria and a man who has touched many lives within our community, is just such a legend.

As I write this, our local surfing community are making plans and setting others aside to attend a Thursday morning paddle out at Ledbetter Beach for Jeffrey D. White. This is the ultimate tribute that surfers make to one another, as was the case when world class surfer Andy Irons passed away unexpectedly shortly before Jeff. Jeff’s passing will not command the worldwide paddle outs that Andy’s did, but his legendary status is equally well deserved.

Born in 1938, Jeff would become the quintessential surfer boy of his day in a post World War II Southern California. The early day “kook boxes,” featuring a hollow construction with veneered plywood had by then replaced the hundred pound redwoods, but they would soon fall away to lighter balsa. Finally the advent of polyurethane foam, even lighter yet, began making surfing more accessible to the masses. (This included one particular small girl who became smitten with the idea of riding waves with the guys. They nicknamed her “Gidget.”)

Jeff was in with a wild and wooly crowd of wave riders that locals like Frayne Higgason and Reynolds Yater could tell you stories about to this day. I have no doubt they would tell you this was a pretty crazy lot, not too unlike a group of buckaroos hitting the saloon after a dry and dusty cattle drive. There were more than a few that lived fast and died young!

Jeff, or “The White Owl” as some came to call him, fit right in with the colorful characters of his era. Guys like Mickey “Da Cat’ Dora, “Tubesteak,” and Greg “The Bull” Noll. There was Bob “The Greek” Bolen, Dewey Weber, and a whole host of others. Noll, Weber, and Bolen became early day surfboard builders, and went on to establish successful businesses that are still around today.

Jeff was a smart man, and aside from all the fun, he managed to attend and graduate college with a business degree. It wasn’t long before he had set up a wetsuit rental business in a clapboard shack along the two lane road that flanked Pleasure Point in Santa Cruz. It was there that I met him for the first time. I was just beginning my surfing career at the ripe old age of eight. Jeff was about 25 then. An engaging young man, he had befriended Jack O’neill, who would become known as the father of the modern day wetsuit. Jeff bought a smattering of what Jack had to offer in those early days; mostly vests, a few shortjohns, and beaver tail jackets. Little did Jeff know that his relationship with O’neill would help propel him into a business that would carry him for the rest of his life.

Except not that day, as the vest my mother rented for me cost all of three bucks, which Jeff pulled down from a rack high up near the ceiling with a long pole. While en route to us, the vest fell on the floor, but I was so excited to wear my first wetsuit ever, I could have cared less that the floor was dirt and the place was a rickety wood shack reinforced with chicken wire over some holes in the walls. (I would not be surprised to learn Jeff slept there at night to protect his early day investment.) I still recall remarking to my brother that I was so warm with the vest on that I could stay out the entire day!

The next time I met Jeff was after his move to Summerland somewhere around the late 50s. There are abundant stories about Yater’s red shack sitting higher up the hill above Jeff’s shop down on the main drag. Just imagine, two surf shops in Summerland; I doubt that will ever happen again! The building Jeff took over would eventually become “The Nugget,” but it was for a good time home to the “White Owl Surfboard.” Some claim the name came from the boards having the same shape as “White Owl” cigars, but Jeff dismissed that recently. Jeff and to Stan (“The Man”) Veith not only built the boards start to finish, but blew their own foam blanks from concrete molds. Jeff told me they would bed down with Army blankets in the molds that were still warm from the day’s production.

Jeff also became a lifeguard, and he and rowing partner Paul Hodgert together paddled their way into surfing history—not on surfboards, but by navigating a dory boat through huge waves at the United States Surfing Championships held each year at Huntington Beach. Every year I would sit and watch ABC’s Wide World of Sports as Hodgert and White would row their dory over mountains of whitewater in a race with other top level lifeguards. Once outside the break, they would round the buoy and turn towards home. Then came the tricky part: to time and catch a wave on one of the unwieldy boats, avoid broadsiding before landing ashore, then dash the last 50 yards in sand to victory! Against all odds, Jeff and Paul did this year after year, and were always the crowd favorite. Hodgert and White dominated an entire decade in this discipline.

While only 17 and still in high school, I started my own surf shop in old town Goleta with a partner, Joe Mickey. After a couple years of modest success, we closed down, and I went on surfari to Central America for several months. Jeff had relocated from Summerland to 209 West Carrillo Street, naming the store “Surf n Wear,” and upon my return, his manager, Char Lockerbie, asked if I would work for Jeff. I jumped at the chance and for the better part of the 70s it was Jeff, Char, her sister Chris, and myself who gave a face to Surf n Wear. As a surfboard shaper, I immediately saw that the venerable Owl surfboard label had fallen along the wayside, and took it upon myself to revive the label. Jeff had some laminates printed, and by 1972 Owls were showing up on local beaches again. Paul Nussbaum (who was ripping Rincon on semi Greenough spoons I had built him) along with locals Randy Rostoker, Bruce Landecker, Dave and Mark Ingalls, Char, and many others began putting Owls under their arms once again.

Old timers were always stopping in to visit Jeff, and a lot of history was shared in the Carrillo Street shop that had once been a gas station. Jeff told me he was advised not to move there because people “will never stop on their way to State Street.” Jeff proved them wrong, and in fact we remember the entire 70s decade as the “golden years.” It was profit from the shop that allowed Jeff to invest in rental properties on upper Bath Street, and to purchase the shack closest to the water along Sand Point Road in Carpinteria. He renovated that modest property and made it his home for his remaining years.

Jeff was a real cornball, to say the least. He would come out front from his office at the Carrillo Street Store and hob knob with customers on a regular basis, and one of his favorite little stunts was to knowingly refer to someone’s mother as “your sister.” Everyone knew he was full of it, but they loved it nonetheless. I recall the day Kim Mearig came in to buy her first wetsuit ever, a timid young girl accompanied by her mother. I was doing the lion’s share of fitting wetsuits back then, so I grabbed a suit told her, “Just go ahead and try this on, and when you’re ready open the door half way; I’ll be here and check it out for you.” So right about then, Jeff shows up and starts chatting with Kim’s mom. The next thing I know, Jeff bellows, “Come on out when you get that suit on, young gal, and show all of us!” Little did we know I was fitting the future women’s world surfing champion!

I remember one morning when a slender bald man in his mid-30s came in looking for a swimsuit. Right about then, Jeff came walking through the front door with a cup of coffee he had gotten at the “Aloha Drive In” next door. He had the habit of sticking on hand in his back pocket; and he was holding his coffee with the other hand. He said, “can I help you, young fellah?” Upon which the guy turned directly to Jeff’s face and said “You’re plastic … You’re plastic, man.” Jeff’s hairline kind of shrunk back a bit and he turned toward me with a grin, raising his eyebrows and making his eyes wide as he tried not to break out laughing. That was a Jeff White classic, I tell ya!

Like the rest of his breed from those early days, Jeff was a prankster. He loved to have Char and Chris and I down to his house on Vallecito in Carpinteria. It would start out innocently enough, with a barbecue and some beer, but it almost always ended up with us playing strip poker with he and his wife, Laura. Chris and I were steady in those days, and Char was like my sister, so it really wasn’t an awkward situation. As I recall, no one ever got down to being buck naked, but it always seemed that the girls came well prepared with something like 15 more clothing items than Jeff and I.

When Jeff decided we would hold a surf contest, I was promptly assigned the duty of making it happen. Char and Chris were in the shop handling all the entry forms, compiling heats, and handling business as usual. I was recruiting young wannabes to help me haul down chairs, scoreboards, binoculars, foghorns, jerseys and everything else imaginable that makes for a successful surf contest while annoying beach residents and solitary beach strollers.

The early day Rincon Classic was such a hit that we added two additional contests at Hammond’s Reef and at Arroyo Burro, aka Hendry’s, aka The Pit. Jeff decided I would be bestowed with the pleasure of running things. With my new found celebrity, I never bothered telling him that the first year, when I took a break while directing the Hammond’s contest, and was up in the bushes looking for a secluded place to pee, I was surrounded by a small group of hardcore locals (a few of whom went on to become career criminals). They impressed upon me that we were never to hold a contest there again. I told them the contest was Jeff’s baby and if they couldn’t let some kids have two days of fun out of the year at “their spot” to go talk to Jeff about it. No one ever did.

Faced with deciding what I would be doing for the rest of my life, I told Jeff I wouldn’t go back to college if we could strike an agreement that would help me secure my future. We made an agreement, and the age of expansion began, which included new faces and places. By the end of the 70s we had expanded the business to include Goleta, San Luis Obispo, and Thousand Oaks. We had new managers: Chris Galbraith, Steve Howell, and a young assistant manager named Roger Nance. Roger was awaiting a store to be his, and his preference was Palo Alto where his family was from. Jeff sent Roger and I to scout the area as I had done for the other shops, but when O’neill found out that we were considering expanding to Northern California, the company asked if we would leave that area open for them and focus more on southern climes. We immediately agreed to do that, as Jack had previously granted Jeff an exclusive dealership on his wetsuits: Jack had promised Jeff not to sell to anyone within a 30-mile radius of Jeff’s business. (This was a closely held secret back in those days, and when I would visit the O’neill family up in Santa Cruz, their manager would show me a pile of letters from Al Merrick requesting a dealership for his Channel Islands shop, and asking why their calls were never returned!) Roger eventually co-founded the Surf-n-Wear shop at the bottom of State Street.

Jeff had a limited amount of energy which was a result of his being stricken with multiple sclerosis. Jeff related to me how he had been given very little chance of walking again until he finally found one doctor who outlined a very specific and demanding program of diet and exercise. As he began to gain some strength, he would crawl in the sand for as long as his energy would last. As he continued to improve, he was able to walk the beach, until he was finally able to jog on the beach he loved.

By the time I joined Jeff, he was a well documented success story of what could be accomplished while having multiple sclerosis. We frequently had MS patients come by to meet and talk with Jeff, who would take the time to inspire them. But the MS impacted his stamina, and he would frequently head home after half a day’s work at the shop. I was behind the scenes doing the bulk of running the business including banking, buying, selling, training, advertising, and scouting for new locations, among other things. Jeff deserved the time he had left; it had been stated to me that he would be very lucky to ever see 60.

There is no doubt in my mind that I could have had more fun being less responsible during my 20s, but I wouldn’t change a thing.

I hope that by sharing some of these personal stories that you can see what kind of man Jeff was. He wasn’t a saint, but he cared about people both young and old. He had a tremendous sense of humor in spite of the cards dealt him, and he made the very best of every situation he was ever presented. I will miss him but will never forget the lesson he taught me: to be true to yourself and have no regrets for living your life the way you see fit.

[This story has been amended since its original posting to reflect the fact that White's partner in Summerland was Stan Veith]

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  1. white owl rules!

  2. do you remember Jess Church who was on the White Owl Surf Team...? what happened to him?


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