The culture of superlatives on the web is inclined toward, well, the super ones. Who’s the best surfer ever? Who’s the fastest, most powerful, etc. But a superlative that’s less than ace can be trickier to call. Take this one: who’s the most overlooked figure in the history of surfing, the one whose contributions have been giant but unfairly forgotten? The running list might take longer to name than potential GOATs, but we do have a candidate from one of Matt Warshaw’s newest chapters in the History of Surfing: Santa Barbara surfer, diver, wetsuit designer (arguably just as game-changing as Jack O’Neill), successful businessman, writer, and photographer Bev Morgan, whom Warshaw describes as the sport’s “great unsung Renaissance Man.”
Why is Morgan still largely overlooked?
I’ll never understand how that works exactly, why some people are remembered and others aren't. Jackie Eberle and Butch Van Artsdalen were both North Shore masters in the mid-'60s. One guy's a legend and the other guy is forgotten. Same with Bobby Patterson from San Clemente. Or Bobby Brown, or Kealoha Kaio, on and on. Each of them, at some point in time, had a claim to being the greatest surfer in the world. With surfers, I think we forget because there are only so many slots allowed to each time period, and that number gets smaller as the decades pass. There's just so much room in the pantheon, you know?
Bev Morgan is a different case, I suppose, because he wasn't so much a great surfer -- although he was very good -- as he was this amazing utility man. He shot SURFER covers, he popularized the wetsuit, he did lots of moving and shaking behind the scenes. He knew everybody, was well-liked, and was really bright -- still is, actually. Bev is very much alive and well. But when there's no single peg upon which to hang your fame, it's hard. Also, unless you're Bruce Browne or Jack O'Neill or John Severson, it’s hard to be remembered at all if your main deal wasn't surfing in a god-like fashion. Plus, Bev's name is Bev, which I think just confuses people.
Is it true that Morgan was one of Dale Velzy's first glassers?
Bev was on the beach with Dale and all the other hot-rod-loving South Bay surfers in the 1950s. Anybody with any boardmaking talent cycled through Velzy's shop at some point, Bev included.
There's also a story that Morgan approached Velzy about teaming up to pursue the diving wetsuit market, but that Velzy declined, saying, "No surfer is ever going to wear one of those goddamn rubbers."
Famous last words from the same guy who said, "The IRS? Fuckers couldn't find my business if I gave 'em a map."
Hindsight is 20/20, but still: why weren't more people expectant of the commercial boom from wetsuits? Even the decision from Hugh Bradner, in not patenting his design for Edco, seems fantastically shortsighted.
There just weren't that many surfers in the early- and mid-'50s, I suppose. A few hundred in California, maybe? Something like that. Not thousands, anyway. Gidget pumped it up, but before then, you'd have needed a crystal ball to throw your money behind wetsuits.
In ’62, Morgan got 10 of the leading boardmakers together and told them they could all make money on wetsuits if they’d put their logos on them and get their team riders to wear them all at the same time. They didn’t believe him, but Morgan said he’d pay their rent for a year if it didn’t happen. That’s a ballsy move.
By that time, there were enough surfers to see the market potential. I don't think what Bev did was ballsy, in that Bev didn't have any serious skin in the game. Like I said, he knew everybody, had the industry connections, so it was just a matter of putting his Don Draper hat on and talking the right people into playing along, all the boardmakers. Which he did. Put your team riders in wetsuits and let everybody see how warm and comfy they are, and how wearing a wetsuit isn't emasculating. Bingo. Worked like a charm. On the other hand, wetsuits were never NOT going to be huge. Bev was smart to push it along when he did, but surfers, sheep-like as they are, weren't going to put up with being cold forever.
And he was a SURFER writer, photographer, and ad salesman, too.
The first female photo on the cover, Bev shot it. And he also took a fantastic shot of Phil Edwards, all hairy and powerful, killing a bottom turn, also used on the cover.
Morgan was also one of the last guys to see Bob Simmons before he died at Windansea in '54. Drove him to the beach, in fact?
Yeah, it’s kind of creepy story. Bev's on the beach, eating lunch, looking out to the lineup, waiting for Simmons to get out of the water--and of course he never does. I did a post about that in History of Surfing.
He'd later devote himself to the scuba business and sell Dive n' Surf to the Meistrell brothers, but did any part of him, late in his career, want to stick his toes in surf again?
I get the feeling he just moves on to the next thing that interests him. There's not a nostalgic bone in his body. He's happy to talk about the past, but his mind is on whatever the latest project is. Any one career-type thing by itself -- surfing, boardmaking, photography, business, diving -- I think would have been limiting for Bev. He jumped from one interest to the next, and that's probably the best way to stay fully engaged in living. If you want a big full life, you keep trying new things, and Bev is living proof of how well that can work.