Dale Velzy Helped Shape Surfer Culture

Surfing pioneer Dale Velzy died last week in California at age 77. Velzy was known as the original cowboy surfer. He manufactured surfboards and helped shape the image of surf culture along California s coastlines.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Surfers are remembering one of the pioneers of their world. Dale Velzy has died at the age of 77. He was once known as The Hawk, and if you've ever been surfing on the West Coast, you may owe him one. He was said to be the first surfboard maker to put his name on the board, and he gets credit for spreading this popular Hawaiian sport on the California coast. NPR's Carrie Kahn sent this remembrance from Los Angeles.

CARRIE KAHN reporting:

Dale Velzy got his nickname, The Hawk, for his keen eyesight. His friend since high school, John McFarlane says as boys, the two would comb the beach for coins, and Velzy could spot a quarter a mile away. McFarlane, who still lives in Hermosa Beach where the two grew up, says The Hawk was a great friend, an amazing craftsman and a legend.

Mr. JOHN McFARLANE (Friend of Dale Velzy): Right now if you went down to San Onofre or if you went to Malibu, it'd be hard not to hear a conversation about, `Hey, did you hear Dale's dead?' you know? I mean, he was that important to the surfing world.

KAHN: Velzy began shaping boards in the early '50s out of his mother's garage. Back then, surfboard makers were moving away from the long redwood planks toward balsa wood. McFarlane shows off an old black-and-white photo of himself standing next to a towering longboard in front of Velzy's mother's house.

Mr. McFARLANE: You can see the garage door. This is where he did all of his shaping of boards, and this was the fifth board that he made in the shop.

KAHN: McFarlane says he wishes he had kept that old board. A balsa-wood Velzy sells for around $3,000 these days. As the lore goes, Velzy was the first to start putting his name on a board. By 1960, he ran five surf shops, two factories and was selling up to 200 boards a week, making him the largest surfboard manufacturer at the time.

John Leininger, who owns Becker's surf shop in Hermosa Beach, says Velzy was innovative, always experimenting with boards, making them faster and easier to handle.

Mr. JOHN LEININGER (Becker's Surf Shop): He made a board that was really popular in Malibu called the Pig, pig-shaped, and that board, the wide spot was behind the center of the board, and it made the board real maneuverable.

KAHN: Leininger says Velzy wasn't the best businessman, but he says not too many surfers were back then.

Mr. LEININGER: At that time, it was such a cottage industry no one, you know, really took it seriously as a business anyway, you know. So no one ever guessed it would turn into this type of, you know, business where you have all these other accessories and wet suits and everything that goes along with it, you know.

KAHN: By the 1960s, Velzy was making shorter, faster boards, hoping younger generations would get into the sport. He also sponsored surfers and befriended a young photographer, Bruce Brown, giving him $5,000 to buy a camera. Brown launched a new genre of surf films, among them the classic "Endless Summer" that further popularized the sport.

(Soundbite of "Endless Summer")

Unidentified Man: The thrill and the fun of the sport of surfing.

KAHN: Along Hermosa Beach these days, Velzy isn't as famous as he used to be, although his name is prominently placed on the town's Surfers Walk of Fame. Twenty-two-year-old Brett McPherson(ph) says the new generation might not know his name, but they know the achievements of the old-time surfers.

(Soundbite of surf)

Mr. BRETT McPHERSON (Surfer): I don't know. Most people I know have a lot of respect for those guys, yeah. Without them, we probably wouldn't be where we are today, with the equipment we have and the moves we have and all the rest. Yep, that's for sure.

KAHN: Velzy is survived by his longtime girlfriend and two children. Friends say a traditional paddle-out service will be held for him in the waters off Southern California soon.

Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Los Angeles.

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