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Jack O’Neill (1923 - 2017)

The Santa Cruz Sentinel via AP / Dan Coyro

Jack O’Neill (1923 - 2017)

Jack O’Neill, a surfing legend who pioneered the wetsuit, died Friday, June 2, 2017, according to multiple news sources. He was 94.

O’Neill’s family said in a statement that he died of natural causes while surrounded by family at his oceanfront home in Santa Cruz, California.

O’Neill grew up surfing and was a Navy pilot during World War II. He opened his first surf shop on San Francisco's Ocean Beach in 1952. He wanted to create a product that would help him and fellow surfers deal with the cold ocean in Northern California. Surfers at the time wore sweaters sprayed with an oily water sealant, O’Neill said in an interview, according to the Los Angeles Times.


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He experimented with neoprene, a type of synthetic rubber used by the U.S. Navy, to produce his first foam rubber vests. O'Neill opened a second surf shop in Santa Cruz, California, in 1959 and introduced a nylon jersey lining for his suits in the 1960s. By 1970, he was producing his first full wetsuit.

O’Neill was a colorful personality who was known for his innovative promotional ideas. He wore a black eye patch over his left eye and sported a full beard. He lost his eye in a surfing accident.

During the 1980s, the O’Neill brand became the world's largest recreational wetsuit maker. They were known for their slogan, “It’s always summer on the inside.”

O’Neill was also a skilled aviator and sailor who invented the sand sailer, a sailboat on wheels that glides on sand.

O’Neill started O’Neill Sea Odyssey, a marine and environmental education program for children.  The program has taken nearly 100,000 children to the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary aboard his 65-foot research catamaran to learn about the ocean. He told The Associated Press the program was his greatest achievement.

“The ocean is alive, and we've got to take care of it,” he said. “There is no doubt in my mind that the O'Neill Sea Odyssey is the best thing I've ever done.”

In 2002, O'Neill was an EY Entrepreneur of the Year Award recipient for the Northern California Region.

O’Neill and his wife, Marjorie, who preceded him in death in 1973, raised six children.

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