Jack O’Neill, who is credited with popularizing the wetsuit, died on June 2 at the age of 94.
O’Neill’s passing was a big deal in Santa Cruz, California, where he lived, surfed, sailed and advocated for ocean conservation for almost 60 years. Locals put flowers, cards, drawings and mementos outside his Pleasure Point home. For several days after his death, there was a lot of sidewalk chatter about O’Neill from the people who knew him, as well as those just learning about the man behind the global surf brand.
Last weekend, the impact of Jack’s life was felt on a massive scale, as thousands participated in a paddle out to honor Jack’s life, his work and his love of the ocean.
As I stood in a sea of people on the Pleasure Point cliffs watching thousands of surfers, kayakers, boogie boarders and stand-up paddle boarders participate in what was the biggest paddle out in history, I was struck by the impact one person had made on a local and global scale. A small plane flew overhead and tipped its wing; dozens of boats joined the tribute; a Coast Guard helicopter flew in, made a circle over the paddlers, and flew away.
It was powerful stuff.
The experience got me thinking about what constitutes a life well-lived, the importance of working with purpose, and what it means to make lasting, positive change.
I’m no Jack O’Neill expert. I’ve learned more about him in the weeks since his passing than I ever knew about him while he was alive. So, these observations are from a bird’s-eye perspective. But these are my takeaways about how O’Neill made such an impact with his life and work.
1. He changed the game with his creation
Before wetsuits, humans could stay in cold water for a few minutes before it became unbearably cold. O’Neill’s wetsuits allowed people to stay in the water indefinitely and helped launch the endless summer lifestyle. He transformed surfing, snorkeling, scuba diving and ocean research.
2. He was driven by passion
You could argue that someone like Sam Walton also changed the game with Walmart, but there was no paddle out for Walton—or mass shopping spree, or whatever fans of big box shopping might do. O’Neill’s creation was driven by a deep love of the ocean and a passion to help humans spend more time in it.
One of my favorite O’Neill quotes is, “When you get all screwed up, and you jump in the ocean, everything’s all right again.”
3. He gave back
O’Neill said his greatest accomplishment was the creation of the O’Neill Sea Odyssey, which provides students with hands-on lessons in marine biology aboard a catamaran on the Monterey Bay.
Far beyond the money he made, his global acclaim, awards he won or his standing as an industry pioneer, O’Neill was proudest of the Sea Odyssey.
“The ocean is alive and we’ve got to take care of it,” he once said. “There is no doubt in my mind that the O’Neill Sea Odyssey is the best thing I’ve ever done.”
4. He loved and supported his community
A few days ago one of my coworking buddies told me a story about catching a wave he rode for a quarter mile. He ended up far from his starting point and got out of the water to head back up.
O’Neill happened to be driving by in his beloved convertible Jaguar and hollered, “Get in, I’ll give you a ride.” When my friend pointed out that he had his kayak and it wouldn’t fit, O’Neill said, “Just stick it in the back.” So off the two went, with my friend’s kayak sticking out the back of the Jag.
5. He was part of his community
O’Neill was a Santa Cruzan. In his later years, he would sit out on his deck watching the surfers down below his house on the cliffs. Everyone knew where he lived and it wasn’t uncommon to hear someone say they were going to Jack’s house when asked which surf spot they were headed to.
He was one of us—a Santa Cruz local.
O’Neill is credited with putting Northern California on the map as a surfing hotspot and, as the New York Times reported, “upgrad[ing] the image of surfers from drug-addled wastrels to serious athletes.”
6. He stood for something
Popularizing the wetsuit was a massive accomplishment, but O’Neill didn’t stop there. He recognized that our oceans, which he loved deeply, are in trouble and that teaching people to love and protect them was one of the most powerful tools to counter ocean pollution and degradation. O’Neill transformed his passion into activism and, in doing so, turned countless young people into marine protectors and conservationists.
7. He was humble
Jack was not “Jack O’Neill” to those who knew him. He was Jack, the guy who lived down the street, surfed the same waves, loved the same waters and worked to protect our shared natural resources.
8. He was bold
When Jack started making wetsuits in a small shop in San Francisco, he could have sold a few, maybe sold the business or idea, and moved on. Instead, he grew O’Neill into a global brand that includes surf essentials, lifestyle apparel, hosting world-class surf contests and, of course, wetsuits.
9. He was an original
No one ever accused O’Neill of being the Steve Jobs of surfing, or the Thomas Edison of surf gear. O’Neill charted his own course, lived his own life and left an enduring legacy of passion, inventiveness, vision and humility.