Severson, pictured here at the SURFER offices in the summer of 1970, was revered by his employees for his many talents and humble demeanor. Photo: Barrett
Severson, pictured here at the SURFER offices in the summer of 1970, was revered by his employees for his many talents and humble demeanor. Photo: Barrett

Lessons From John

What I learned from SURFER founder John Severson about life, art and where the two become one

We may not notice when they occur, but little things make big differences in how we get to where we are. It's like the so-called butterfly effect: A wee little butterfly flaps its wings in China and eventually a hurricane is born in the Atlantic — or something like that. This is simply the law of "one thing leads to another." We've all got our personal examples of how some small coincidence changed everything for us — the multitudes of tiny moments that have brought each of us to this particular here and now, in which we are converging on these words: John Severson. If one small thing had been different, everything would be different.

Were it not for one such twist of fate, you might never have heard of John Severson. After growing up in San Clemente, California, surfing and learning how to use a camera, then graduating from Long Beach State College with a degree in art education, he had just begun a teaching job back in San Clemente when he was drafted into the U.S. Army. It was 1957, and John was bound for Germany. As he once explained it, "There was this long list of draftees, and they were assigned to either Germany or Hawaii: 'Man No. 1: Germany. Man No. 2: Hawaii. Man No. 3: Germany,' and so on. I was going to Germany … and then somebody up the list died or disappeared, and everybody moved up one. And so I went to Hawaii."

Because some guy dropped off the list, John went to the birthplace of surfing. On Oahu, his skill with pen and ink got him assigned to mapmaking, and his abilities in the ocean put him on the U.S. Army surfing team. One thing led to another. His Hawaiian assignment led to his first films ("Surf," "Surf Fever," "Surf Safari") and then SURFER magazine, which transformed surf culture while turning John into a genuine cultural icon.

John Severson first moved to Hawaii when he was drafted into the Army back in 1957. After leaving SURFER, he returned to the islands with his wife and daughters to focus on surfing, his family and his artwork. Maui, 1979. Photo: Loomis

I first met John at the 1967 SURFER Poll banquet at the San Clemente Inn on the south side of town. Up until then, I knew him only through the magazine itself and three letters I'd received: one rejecting my ode to Mickey Dora ("Recluse on a Crowded Day"), one accepting my offer to cover the 1967 Smirnoff Pro-Am at Steamer Lane and the other accepting my short story about a depressed surfer who takes LSD and drowns at night in pure psychedelia. I figure John accepted that one because the magazine's editor at the time, Patrick McNulty, was not a fan of "dope," and since the surfer dies, the message was clear.

The attire at the banquet was generally formal. The assembled surfers and industry folk were in celebratory moods, and the alcohol was flowing. I noticed just a few nods to the cultural revolution that was flowering (and smoking) outside: emcee Brennan "Hevs" McClelland performed a routine as "Maharishi Laguna" in a send-up of hippie culture. He was wearing a long-haired wig, granny sunglasses and a colorful bedspread while playing a tiny backpacker's guitar with feathers tied to the neck. Otherwise, only David Nuuhiwa and Skip Frye seemed to embrace the tuned-in, turned-on vibe of the times, although it was nattily attired Steve Bigler who sparked the joint out by the pool.

John was pretty reserved as host. He graciously handed out trophies to the top 10 guys and five ladies, plus a couple of gag awards. He was not tremendously comfortable with public speaking, it seemed. It was only after the awards, amidst a cacophony of familial chatter, that John offered me a job at SURFER: associate editor, $500 a month. A young couple could live on that then. So we left our home in Santa Cruz and moved to San Clemente, and within a couple of months I was just plain editor while John was publisher and editor. He ran the show. But he gave me room, and then more room, and more.

So far as I could tell, John had invented his own way of making a magazine. I learned that he had started from scratch in a garage in Dana Point, California, and that one thing had led to another. By the time I came onto the scene, he had a beautiful system in place, formulated with help from the talented people who had worked on the mag up until then: Leo Bestgen, John Van Hamersveld, Mike Salisbury, Bill Cleary, Rick Griffin, Pat McNulty, Larry Rink, Ron Dahlquist, Ron Stoner and others. It was pretty much a who's-who.

Severson in the SURFER offices, 1968. Photo: Barrett

I worked with John on a daily basis for a little over two years. We had our ups and downs, but he generally gave me (and others) the benefit of the doubt. There was a shyness about him that I read as an inherent gentleness. He didn't relish being the focus of attention; he'd rather create on his own, and on his own terms. When big-name advertisers would show up at the office, John would slip down the back stairs, leaving a message at reception to tell them he was out for the day. Same with the notable surfers who dropped in. But he was fully engaged with his staff, and he carefully conveyed what our responsibilities were and what he'd personally learned about how to do the job. Once you got it, he left you alone.

I was part of the "psychedelic '60s" sea change that swept Brad Barrett, Hyatt Moore, Art Brewer and me into the key positions, and we definitely changed the vibe of the place. But the business of making a magazine was already established, and that structure allowed us to build on what had preceded us. There were staff meetings with John to discuss the next issue and to review the last. There were lunches at Henry's Mexican cantina with fellow staffers and surfers. There were meetings with advertisers and printer reps and color-house reps. There was "the board" — the 4-by-6-foot sheets of Plexiglas hanging on the wall where each issue was mapped out in colored grease pencils according to the dictates of the usual 40-60 ad-to-editorial ratio. And there were typewriters, sheets of paper, endless pots of coffee, galleys of type and color proofs of the photo separations. This was the world that John had built.

A hand-drawn layout of a 1967 issue of SURFER

John knew the big picture. Doubleday had published his book "Modern Surfing Around the World" in 1964, the first comprehensive look at surfing on planet Earth. If anyone had an objective overview of surfing, it was John. And yet when I met him he seemed to have lost the thread. He wasn't surfing; he was golfing. He had a nice Mercedes, and it seemed he wasn't in the mood to contribute creatively to the magazine.

Thanks to the success of SURFER, John had moved his family into the gated Cypress Shores community at the southern end of San Clemente, and he generously extended coveted guest-access privileges to any staffers who wanted it. I became a regular at the gate, waved through by the guard to drive right on down to John's house in the last cul-de-sac at the southwest corner of the development. I'd park in front, change into trunks or a wetsuit, take the board off the racks, grab some wax and scoot down the emergency-access ramp, across the railroad tracks and down onto the sand. If it was a south swell, Cottons was the place. But usually it was a mile walk south along the shore, past Barbwires to Upper or Lower Trestles — the most fun places I'd ever surfed, and very seldom crowded at the time. This was a magnificent perk, which I greatly appreciated.

Severson and Kampion, late ’60s. Photo: Barrett

We had some fun, that's for sure. My father had died a few years earlier (and way too early), and I suppose John filled a void. In return, in response to his curiosity, I shared one of those funny-smelling joints with him, and let's just say he was enthusiastic. His wonderful wife, Louise, was not pleased — until she tried it. So it was a fine time — creating a magazine with very little sense of limitation, with a subject matter as wonderful as surfing, and then getting to surf regularly at one of the very best places to do so. Even getting arrested by the Marines for trespassing on their beaches (everything south of Barbwires was USMC property) just turned into a journalistic opportunity.

At the magazine, John allowed me to follow almost any naïve impulse I had, and he seemed to take my editorial direction as some sort of personal inspiration. When I created a haiku to go with a photo, he wrote one of his own for the following issue. My random stories and riffs seemed to loosen his creative tongue, and he wrote a story of his own, "Buster's New Board" — a hilarious send-up of the shortboard revolution for the March 1969 issue. He washed off his surfboard and trotted down the beach with me to Trestles, which he'd been surfing since the '50s but more recently had avoided. He got back on a plane again (John hated to fly). He dusted off his movie camera, flew to Hawaii and started shooting Pipeline from the water with a housing.

Greg Noll, in what Severson called the best photo he'd ever taken. Photo: Severson

Things took a turn when Richard Nixon moved in next door at La Casa Pacifica, also known as the Western White House. (You can buy it now for $63.5 million.) John had taken a few candid photos of the president's arrival in San Clemente for Life magazine, and the president responded by having our phones tapped (we could tell). We could no longer walk down the beach when The Big Dick was in town.

In retrospect, which is really the only "spect" we've got, John was already tuned into the cosmic situation that had come to his little corner of the world. Next door to the most powerful man in the world, who was calling the shots and escalating the war in Vietnam, which was always hungry for more young bodies (many of them surfers) to serve an increasingly insane mission — it all made the blissful coastal neighborhood decidedly less so.

With me more or less taking over editorial duties at the magazine, John felt free to pursue an irresistible creative pull back toward his original love: film. What followed was the ultimate surf movie, and the first environmental surf feature: "Pacific Vibrations." He bought an old-school bus and called in a crew of gifted artists (including the great Rick Griffin) to paint the thing into a gorgeous psychedelic surf statement named Motorskill. Then he filled the thing with hot surfers, photographers and hitchhikers and headed up to Hollister Ranch to create an idyllic record of what California surfing could still be like.

The 1960 "Surf Fever" premiere, where the first issue of SURFER was released.
Photo: Severson

The huge offshore oil blowout off the nearby Santa Barbara coast synchronously kicked off the modern environmental era — for surfing and for most anyone else on the planet who was paying attention.

In everything he did, John was essentially an artist. He was sensitive and perceptive and acutely aware of the world around him. So maybe he was already feeling the draw to the "great opening" that was the '60s, the volcanic upwelling of stifled stuff that blew up in those years, about the time I came on the scene. But then he took that ethos way beyond what I was capable of.

When John started SURFER, he and Louise agreed it would be a 10-year venture to be followed by some other adventure, and so it was. John sold the business in 1971 to a company called For Better Living, Inc., a manufacturer of precast concrete and plastic products, which thus became a publisher of specialty magazines (SURFER, and then Powder, Snowboarder, Sailboarder, etc.). Searching for their next home, John took off with Louise and their daughters, Jenna and Anna, to Maui and New Zealand and then to the South Pacific; I remember seeing photos of them living in a tree house on the beach in Papeete. But I had the distinct feeling John was looking for something in a larger sense too.

In the end, they returned to Maui and bought a great plot of land upcountry, where John designed and built a beautiful and very organic home. I visited them in January 1973, and John and I hiked through Haleakala, the East Maui Volcano, with a couple of "crater guys" he knew — as profound an experience as any I've had.

Though he loved life upcountry, he longed for a place on the water and eventually bought a small parcel in Napili — a little wedge of land that included a rocky outcropping and access to a pretty decent surf spot known as Little Makaha. It wasn't much, but he built a small and inspired island home there and began to paint. Then he built a wonderful studio and painted some more. And he became the artist he always was.

John's life as a painter began when he was a promising art student at Long Beach State College, where his professor noted his obvious skills but felt something was lacking. "Why don't you paint what you're interested in?" he asked. That was surfing, John answered with a dismissive shrug. To which the professor said, "Paint that," and John did, and he excelled. One of those paintings ("Surf BeBop") made it onto the February/March 1963 cover of SURFER. But it was a while before he got back into painting — what with the demands of the mag and the business and the family. But he did, eventually, publishing three reworked pieces in a January 1969 spread that he titled "Surf Art," perhaps coining the term.

"Left Line," 11" x 15" watercolor, 2005.

I visited John at the Napili house in the early '90s and we did an interview for The Surfer's Journal. He was so stoked with his life and with Louise and his girls and his painting. His whole reality seemed resonant with the elder Nat Young's mission statement: "Make it a beautiful life."

John was an artist and a surfer and a teacher. He taught all of us surfers what a wonderful thing we were involved in and how many ways there were to express our appreciation for it in so many mediums. He certainly taught me how to be truly alive in the moment.

So here's how this integrated Renaissance mind described his life in an interview with Nathan Howe in their 2014 book, "John Severson's SURF":

"Surfing has already begun. You have the mind of a Robbe-Grillet novel character; you've already ridden that wave, and now you've approached it again, riding it, paddling out from the beach, and then you're back there behind the wheel pulling up to the beach. It's an attainable treasure hunt, an adventure full of pleasures and successes. You're going to get it a lot of times. And what you get is so great, it's almost beyond words … this experience with moving water, sliding under a lip, carving across moving mountains; wipe out and come up laughing."

"Free fall," 15" x 11" watercolor, 2007.

[This feature originally appeared in the 58.6 Issue of SURFER, on newsstands and available for download now.]