To most SURFER readers he was just that old man watching the wave in the now-classic Art Brewer portrait featured in Vol??#?? “Surfing Forever” issue. And it is a memorable image: the aged beach boy, white-haired, eighty season skin leathery tanned, clad in a simple pair of trunks, standing on a Hawaiian beach, empty save for a single surfer in the distance. But it’s the old man’s attitude that gets you, the posture of intent: hands clasped easily behind his back, broad shoulders hunched, gaze steady. Obviously regarding the distant surfer dropping into a small, lined-up left. Obviously still interested, still drawn to that simple moment of interaction between sea and shore; between man and wave.
He was the surfer we all want to be: a surfer for life.
A great shot, and yet nothing special to John Kelly, the old man in the photo, who had been looking out toward the waves virtually every day of his life. And when that life ended on Oct 3, 2007—when John Kelly, 88, quietly passed away in his Diamond Head home of some 70 years—you can imagine that some of his last thoughts must have drifted back over the waves to which he’d dedicated his time on earth,
John Kelly was a hard-core surfer in a manner few can comprehend today, when the term has been commoditized, stamped into the coin necessary to sell surf trunks and skate shoes. But John Kelly defined the true meaning of the word because he lived it—and that means living it your whole life, making it your whole life, integral to your existence.
It was that for John Kelly. Born in 1919, he moved to Honolulu, Hawaii at age four, where he quickly fell in love with warm Pacific. Like many malahinis, developing a passion that equaled that of many native Hawaiians. He grew up in the surf, riding the waves off Waikiki with friends like Wally Froiseth and Fran Heath, with whom he developed the “Hot Curl”. Designed to ride the steep south swells off Black Point on Diamond Head without “sliding ass”, the finless Hot Curl, with its cut-down tail and narrow nose template, was the prototypical big wave gun—a design leap that led to virtually every major surfboard innovation that followed.
Kelly took his Hot Curl and along with Froiseth, Downing and Crew pioneered modern big wave riding on the 1940s and ‘50s, being among the first to ride Makaha Point Surf, as well as many of the North Shore breaks whose discovery is usually attributed to the waves of Californians who followed in their wake. He did so on another unique design of his own, the step-tailed “hydro” board whose sophisticated bottom contour wasn’t matched for at least another decade.
But Kelly’s commitment to waves wasn’t limited to the ones he caught. The water was his world. During WWII he declared himself a non-combatant yet served as a diver, winning a Navy-Marine medal of valor for an exceptionally hazardous salvage operation. In 1961 he helped form S.O.S—Save Our Surf—perhaps the world’s first surf zone-oriented environmental group, which in the years since has helped save over 140 Hawaiian surf breaks, fostering a sense of kokua that continues today. His book Surf and Sea, published in 1965, was again decades ahead of its time in terms of comprehensive perspective.
Throughout the eras this Julliard School of Music graduate (Class of 1950, the only time he ever spend away from the sea) also championed Hawaiian sovereignty, protested nuclear weapons proliferation—he openly joined the Communist party during the early years of the Cold War. Kelly stood for something more than just the next swell off Castles.
Activist, artist, teacher, husband (he was married to his wife Marion for 61 years) John Kelly was beneath it all a surfer. He was the surfer we all want to be: a surfer for life. Right up to the end. Because even as the Alzheimers dimmed his modes of expression, Kelly would each day lower himself into the warm Pacific near his home in Diamond Head where, it can be hoped, all the energy of every wave he’d ever ridden—ever looked at with longing and love—flowed back into him, speeding him on his way.