Low-key and savvy surf industrialist from Santa Cruz, California; founder of O'Neill Wetsuits, the world's leading manufacturer of surfing wetsuits. O'Neill was born (1923) in Denver, Colorado, and raised in Southern California and Oregon. He started bodysurfing in the late 1930s, and continued to do so after moving to San Francisco in 1949, where he got his B.A. in liberal arts from San Francisco State.
O'Neill opened the prosaically titled Surf Shop out of a beachfront garage in San Francisco in 1952, and a few months later—inspired, he later said, by the neoprene foam flooring of a DC-3 passenger plane—he made his first neoprene wetsuit vest. (The original wetsuit prototypes were made in 1951 by a U.C. Berkeley physicist; Southern California's Dive N' Surf company, like O'Neill, began making wetsuits in 1952.) O'Neill opened a second Surf Shop in Santa Cruz in 1959, just prior to the first American surf boom. Surfboards were the primary sale item at first, but wetsuits became the shop's defining product in the early '60s, and by the end of the decade O'Neill was the industry leader.
O'Neill lost sight in his left eye in 1971 after his leash-tethered surfboard snapped back and hit his face; the surf leash, ironically, had been invented the year before by Pat O'Neill, Jack's son. (A stylized piratelike image of O'Neill with a full beard and eye patch would later be used as the company logo.) O'Neill was by that time the consummate behind-the-scenes operator of what was turning into a small international empire, hiring talented managers so that he could continue to surf and sail around Santa Cruz. He never brought attention to himself, and on the rare event when he spoke to the surf press he modestly attributed his success to little more than good timing. Industry insiders, however, regard O'Neill as perhaps the coolest and shrewdest surf businessman alive—the "rubber baron," as surf journalist Ben Marcus later called him.
O'Neill was inducted into the International Surfing Hall of Fame in 1991 and the Huntington Beach Surfing Walk of Fame in 1998. Surfer magazine in 1999 named him as one of the "25 Most Influential Surfers of the Century," and in 2000 he was given the Waterman Achievement Award from the Surf Industry Manufacturers Association.
Jack O'Neill: It's Always Summer on the Inside, a biography written by former Surfer editor Drew Kampion, was published in 2011.