In the end there is only one measure of surfing status that matters, and it isn’t an ASP world title or a segment in a Taylor Steele movie or getting in a Quiksilver ad or having a Reef sandal named after you. It’s not being a bully at Pipeline or a thug in Maroubra or the loudest, grumpiest guy out at Lowers. It’s got nothing to do with hierarchy at all, but everything to do with a surfer’s place in the world. Because in the end it’s that place that matters and nothing else. Being of it means everything. It means being a Local.
When on August 23, 2008—a Saturday—Jeffrey “Midget” Smith died of cancer at 56—finally, following a metabolic battle that waged for over two decades—he had long since reached that status. And this is why: because in the wake of his passing it became clear that surfers from his hometown of San Clemente California, like surfers everywhere notoriously single-minded in their pursuit of self-delusion, cared more about this man than they did their next wave. No, that’s wrong—not just surfers from his hometown. Surfers from around the world, from all the places he traveled to in over a half century of surf life; literally thousands of surfers who over the decades paddled out on his hand-shaped boards, spending some of the best times of their lives looking down at the circle-and-seagull Midget Smith Surfboards logo; two generations of surfers whose dreams of excellence rested in his capable hands and keen eye from atop the judge’s scaffolding in virtually every competitive venue from scruffy WSA district jamborees to big-time ASP juggernauts.
They all would’ve been there for him, had they been able, back in the mid-1980s, when Midget was first diagnosed with cancer. By then he was already a Southern Californian stalwart. Graduating from San Clemente High in 1969, Midget made the wondrous transition from longboard to short at places like The Pier and State Park—the hot grom 15 years before Jimmy Hogan, the McNultys, Archy and the Beschens put SC on the map. He started his shaping career at Hobie, following the Skil lines of master Terry Martin, before starting his own outfit in 1972: Midget Smith Surfboards (‘midget” to discern himself from a fellow amateur competitor at the time, the much taller Jeff Smith from Huntington Beach.) A top WSA jersey junkie himself, Midget dominated the Master’s Division throughout the late 1970s, but he was already fashioning himself into the mentor’s role, shaping the boards and careers of some of the state’s best young surfers, including meteoric Joey Buran, the burgeoning pro era’s original blonde prodigy.
More than his hot surfing, more than his hot shapes, it would be Midget’s commitment to the next generation of surfing competitors that would establish his legacy; giving, guiding, inspiring. He began judging competitive events in 1980, determined to bring a level of consistency and fairness to what at the time was an arbitrary and often frustrating exercise. Over the next 28 years of his life there was hardly a strata of competitor that Midget Smith had not sat in judgment of, helping to organize a veritable alphabet of organizations: WSA, ISA, NSSA, USSA, IPS, ASP. Yet for Midget this meant more than just being a “red’s up and riding” pencil-pusher. Along with Mary Lou Drummy, his equally dedicated partner of over 20 years, Midget presided over more than repercharge heats. Through the couple’s selfless—and most often thankless—devotion to the amateur competitive scene they helped young surfers from all over the country foster that vital combination of dreams and discipline necessary to be a winner. In anything.
When first diagnosed with cancer in 1986, his family and the entire San Clemente surf community gathered in support. Uncomplaining, Midget fought the ultimately inner war for over 20 years. Along the way he kept judging and kept shaping, providing joy and good waves for a clientele that is as impressive as it is eclectic. What else could you call a collection of riders that include every ilk from longboard stylist (and stepdaughter) Maureen Drummy-Haggar to former wunderkind Martin Potter; from homegrown heroes like Jim Hogan to world champions like Andy Irons. When Mark Occhilupo borrowed a board to win the finals of the 2001 Op Pro Boat Trip Challenge, he rode a Midget shape. When Shane Beschen took out a WQS event at Trestles he did the same.
When the cancer aggressively reasserted itself this past year Midget’s family, much extended now, responded in a way that reflected his status beyond any accolades: a hometown fundraiser netted over $11,000 to help offset the staggering cost of chemotherapy. Even as a judge and a shaper to the world Midget remained San Clemente’s to the end. Which finally came on that Saturday in August, when in his home and surrounded by his immediate family, Midget Smith’s remarkable ride came to an end. Remarkable not for reasons of fame or exposure or monetary wealth, but for its impact on a much more human level. Midget Smith was a surfer, a surfer for his family, his friends, his beach. And he was the very best sort of surfer, because despite being the ultimate local, he was a surfer for others: the surfers who rode his boards, the kids he inspired to surf their best. Giving right down to the end, as if that—not simply the next wave—was all that mattered.