Wetsuit Pioneer and Surfing Icon Jack O'Neil Dies at 94

Jack O'Neil, whose innovative neoprene wetsuit helped create the sport of cold-water surfing, died Friday at the age of 94. The Santa Cruz-based businessman passed away peacefully in his home, according to his family.

Before pioneering the use of neoprene in wetsuits, for decades O'Neil played with various insulating methods to extend his surfing season in chilly Northern California. He tried foam rubber before switching to neoprene, intrigued after seeing the substance used in the carpet of an airplane.

For years, O'Neil battled his primary business rival Bob Meistrell of Body Glove International for the title of "inventor of the neoprene wetsuit". To this day, no one is certain who was the first to use the cutting-edge surf technology.

Regardless, no one disputes that O'Neil created an internationally successful surf business, starting at a small surf shop in San Francisco in 1952 before opening a store in Santa Cruz seven years later. By the 1980s, O'Neil had become the world's biggest wetsuit company and a global brand.

The surf mogul was known for his striking look as well as his business acumen, rocking an eye patch over the eye he lost in a surfing accident, as well as a bushy beard. He developed a reputation for flashy marketing, including putting his children into his wetsuits and dunking them into ice water to prove his slogan, "It's always summer on the inside".

Even more than his business accomplishments, O'Neil felt proud of the O'Neil Sea Odyssey, an educational and marine program for children. Since its founding in 1996, the program sent over 100,000 children to the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary where they learned more about the ocean aboard O'Neil's 65-foot catamaran.

"The ocean is alive, and we've got to take care of it," O'Neil reportedly said of the program.

Though born in Denver, Colorado, O'Neil spent most of his developmental years in Oregon and California. He received a Bachelor's Degree from San Francisco State University in 1949. O'Neil had six children with wife Marjorie, who passed away in 1973.




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