Jim Gallagher Interview, Page 2

Introduction | Gallagher interview, page 1 | Gallagher interview, page 2

Conducted as part of Tales from Kelly's Cove, by Western Neighborhoods Project, May 2, 2013.

[Read the beginning of the Jim Gallagher interview]

LaBounty: Let’s go back to the women for a second. So, I always think of surfing in the early days, especially at Kelly’s, there were a lot of guys there, but there were some women definitely. You talked about your friend. What do you remember and what would they do? Were they surfers? Would they hang around the fire?

Gallagher: Well, there were women, girls involved, beachgoers mostly, but also body and mat surfers. Yeah. Some of them got married to guys out there. Georgia was married to Ron Cutler. Dottie Archer married John Mojas. Dottie Archer – she was quite an athlete. Of course, her brother, George, was a famous golfer – George Archer – I don’t know if you remember that name. It was quite a while ago. A lot of golfers came out of San Francisco at that era. There were quite a few women that were really quite good in the water, in fact several were Olympic champions. Most body surfed and mat surfed. You know, going back into those early years there were so few people board surfing. I don’t remember many women board surfing at that point at Kelly’s.

LaBounty: But they’d be on the beach.

Gallagher: There were women – girls who were coming out – that would go in the water – and there were girls that were coming out that wouldn’t go in the water. But, there were guys coming out that didn’t go in the water either. But, the number of women that went in the water was much fewer than the number of guys and they were – let’s see – all the ones I knew were San Franciscans. For how long we didn’t really know, but most of them… The ones I [knew], they were all born here.

Crowd on the wall at Ocean Beach, early 1970s. - Courtesy of Dennis O'Rorke

LaBounty: Well, I guess Carol [Schuldt] was a Lowell…

Gallagher: Lowell High School, yeah. Carol is probably eighty, I know she’s about Pat [Cunneen]’s age, so she could be in her late seventies, maybe on the verge of eighty. Pat will be eighty in September. I have some pictures of her in one of the groups out at Kelly’s. At the time she was going with this guy Dick Pettrochi. Pettrochi went in the water; he was a body surfer, but perhaps more of a beach guy. He was one of the few guys that was into weight training in the ‘50s and a good athlete, but less driven by the surfing bug. Carol was in every day. A lot of women, they were in the water all the time.

LaBounty: Even though it was kind of a family feeling, were there hierarchies a little bit between the older people and the new? Did one have to do certain things to fit in or be accepted? Or was that a later dynamic?

Gallagher: No, when I first went to Kelly’s it was more of a tribal cultural: you tended to meld with the group, and yes, it included both care and responsibilities. To some extent, at least among the surfers, it was a buddy system because everyone knew that in the water everyone was susceptible to harm. A second factor was the smaller number, so it was possible to assimilate and there were not good options to exist as a loner. Early, there weren’t that many people, so – yes – if the population of surfers was 50-100, the numbers that would be there on any given day you probably wouldn’t get much more than a dozen. On some nice days, yeah, you’d get 25-30 on a Saturday that was really perfect in September. The numbers could get up to quite a few. So, you have a small number and usually the new people that came out, might be one, two, maybe three in a bunch. I was prompted to go to Kelly’s by Ron Cutler and a few other people who said, "Jeesh, you have to go out there and really get some better surf if you’re interested.’ So I went out there and I knew somebody, so I knew one in the crowd and I kind of hunkered in.

LaBounty: You had entrée.

Gallagher: Yeah, so that’s right. There was somebody to greet you. I don’t remember a lot of introducing everybody like it was a protocol of some sort. But, go out and then gradually you start talking to someone. You might know somebody for a long time before you knew their name. And, so, there was that kind of assimilation and I think by the mid ‘60’s there were just so many people on the beach things began to change somewhat, not dramatically at first, but, as in so many social places, the tendency was to stay with those with a common background. The kids coming from Lincoln [High School], tended to stay with Lincoln kids even when they may not have had social experience with them at school or in their neighborhood. The kids from Washington [High School] similarly stayed with others from Washington. The kids from S.I. [St. Ignatius] stayed mostly with their classmates. Of course there were always exceptions. But the increased population was correlated with increased subgroups.

And there was less of that and they certainly didn’t mingle with guys who were ten years older than them. On the basketball courts you might play with a guy that is two and three years older than you, until you’re in your twenties and then it kind of goes all over the place. But, early on, that was the thing that was very clear: that you went out and whether you were ten or whatever... I don’t know what the oldest guys were at the time I was there – I don’t think they were that many – maybe in their late fifties probably because most of them were still working. I knew a guy like Slim that was hanging around. I have no idea how old Slim was. I mean he was a guy that I don’t think I know anything about – except he was at the beach every day and he’d be there all day.

LaBounty: So, the early years, you’re talking about the ‘50’s, ‘60’s, early ‘60’s?

Gallagher: Yeah, mid ‘50’s through the early ‘60’s.

LaBounty: It’s more like you show up, you’re just one of the crowd and there’s a diversity of people in ages and such. Then later more would come out, there’s a little more segregation between high schools and age groups a bit?

Gallagher: Yes. College kids. Didn’t mess, didn’t hang. Unless, you know, even if they had a brother, you know, they’d…

LaBounty: You’d hang with your age group.

Jim Gallagher, second from right, with surfing friends at Santa Cruz, 1959. - Courtesy of James Gallagher

Gallagher: Yeah. I’m not sure how long, you know? Even then you might reluctantly move into the older brother or younger… You know, the older brother is probably going to move into the younger brother’s crowds. But, you know, they might have. But later on that didn’t happen.

LaBounty: Why do you think there were more crowds in the ‘60’s then?

Gallagher: Well, the increased popularity of surfing. First of all, wetsuits emerged and the surfboards vastly improved. There were boards being made by experienced shapers. Design errors were reduced somewhat, although experimentation was juvenile at best. Finally, model surfers, heroes of a sort, were emerging, in some part due to surf movies.

LaBounty: It became more accessible to surf?

Gallagher: Yeah. Yeah. I’m trying to think of the first year. It was the early ‘60’s the first surf movies were shown in the SF Bay Area. I’ve got that date. In fact, that’s part of the Mojas story. Dave Mojas was the principle actor in bringing surf movies to San Francisco. He had met some guys in Hawaii, Bruce Brown, I believe. There were two Browns that produced early surf movies: Bud Brown and Bruce Brown. They both made movies and they both were early successful movies that were shown here. I know that Hoover Junior High School was rented a couple of times and they showed surf movies there early, and I don’t know where else. I could find out from Dave where he first showed them. I might even have put it in the article because I interviewed him not so long ago – about a year ago now. And, he and Charlie Grimm and Al Peace talked to Bruce Brown and made the arrangements for a surfing movie to be shown in San Francisco. They rented a hall, and made some flyers. Dave was a tremendous businessman and he was the principle organizer – he got everybody that purchased tickets to give their address so a subsequent mailer could be used. He developed a mailing list and otherwise the promotion would have been limited to word of mouth on the beach. The mailing lists added breath to the promotion; it helped to draw a larger audience.

The very first surf movie drew people from Santa Cruz, Marin, the Stinson Beach crowd – because we packed it. Wherever it was, it was a packed house and it was very successful. And then the second year they invited Jack O’Neill to participate. Jack had started his surf ware and surfboard business, so they invited Jack to get involved. Dave was very reluctant to discuss the issue, but he and Jack had a falling out as a result of this surfing movie enterprise and the result was hard feelings– which is discussed in O’Neill’s book. Charlie Grimm was the one that I used to hear most of the complaints about how O’Neill took advantage of the situation, but it had a negative impact as they were once good friends and they never resolved their bad feelings. Charlie wouldn’t talk to Jack after that. Dave courteously talks to him, but there is definite baggage that limits their social intercourse. He respects Jack because Jack was a very successful businessman, but Dave subliminally feels that Jack accessed his mailing list and used it as an advantage when promoting on his own, future, surfing movies.

LaBounty: …and built his business.

Gallagher: …and started doing surf movies. And Dave says what the irony of the whole thing is, “I’m a contractor – a very successful contractor.” He noted that he was content with his financial state. Further, that he didn’t have an ambition to be a promoter of surf movies. He just felt that the way O’Neill took over was not good. But, anyway, the advent of surfing movies had a major impact on the sport, because not only did kids who were surfing go to see the surf movies, but young kids who were the future of surfing were beginning to be attracted to the beach and surfing. I remember the Beach Boys were coming along and surf music, and so there was a surf mythology that was developing all through the country and so now everybody was buying surfboards, whether they could surf or not. It was having some kind of sensibility about the water and, of course, more people were going to Santa Cruz, Pedro Point, Rockaway Beach, and all along the coast. There was an increasing number of people in the water, no question about it.

LaBounty: The popularity of surfing just kind of exploded there.

Gallagher: The availability of commercial boards, wetsuits, and having model surfers—stars, heroes—were the three major components of the equation that fed the explosion. It may have happened without one or the other, but I think if there had been no wetsuits, at least in Northern California, it would have seriously curtailed the rapid growth. If the boards hadn’t been available commercially it would have limited the number of people that would have ended up with a board. It certainly would have impacted the steadily improving quality of surfboards. Early on, in the first year or two, only a few people had surfboards and they lent them to other aspiring surfers.

When you went surfing it was very common to have three or four people ask “Can I have it next?” “Can I borrow it next?” And, of course, at Ocean Beach it was usually not a problem. When you went to Santa Cruz it was much different, because in Santa Cruz cliffs bordered most of the surf breaks and when you lost your board while riding, we didn’t have the leashes at that point, so it was likely the surfboard would be seriously damaged or dinged, at least, and so people were a lot less interested in lending a board in Santa Cruz, as opposed to Kelly’s or Ocean Beach.

LaBounty: Now, do you think because of Kelly’s, because it’s colder and it can be rougher, and it’s just colder out of the water too, and all those things, do you think it makes for a hardier surfer? If the wetsuit hadn’t come along how many people would be surfing out there today?

Gallagher: Well, more, but not as many.

LaBounty: It takes a certain breed to go in that water without a wetsuit.

Gallagher: Fred Van Dyke, Jim Fisher, Jose Angel and several others that went off and lived in Hawaii and became well-known for their surfing ability, often said “Anybody that surfs Ocean Beach in San Francisco is going to have no trouble in Hawaii.” The waves might be bigger on a regular basis, but the water is a helluva lot warmer and it’s just not as dangerous, because here – if you had to do some of the swims that they do in Hawaii – I mean, you’d perish. You hear these stories of guys on North Shore that have had to swim around to some other place because the swells get so big and close out, but they can be in the water for an hour, an hour and a half, swimming efficiently.

Fisher, Mojas, and Stan Stewart have all reported stories in which they were swimming for well over an hour in Hawaiian water. An hour and a half of swimming in this water at 52 degrees, you’re not swimming efficiently. The Golden Gate swims, the guys that make it over in twenty-five minutes aren’t bad, but those poor guys at the end of the line, you know, they have a tough hoe, unless they gotta lot of weight and usually now most of them put on wetsuits. It’s a long time in that water. The big thing also at that time was somebody swimming from the Farallones to the city and since they didn’t have wetsuits or anything like that it was - it was something that was never accomplished. In fact, the best swim from the Farallones into the ‘50’s was Myra Thompson, who was a Lincoln High graduate and swimmer. She made it to just outside Kelly’s and that’s where they brought her in. She was just totally sapped, she never was the same after. But then a few years later, the two guys – the only two guys I think have ever done it – did it within six weeks. It was an El Niño – the water was 62°. One made it into Bolinas and the other guy came to the base of the bridge. Just recently a third successful swim was made from the Farallones to underneath the Golden Gate Bridge.

LaBounty: It’s amazing. How far is that?

Gallagher: Twenty-six miles.

LaBounty: Wow.

Gallagher: You could see them from the Bay.

LaBounty: Yeah, yeah. But that’s crazy to me. That’s really crazy.

Gallagher: Well, people could swim to, you know, in the Caribbean they swim – somebody’s gone from Cuba to Florida, I think, ninety miles. But the water is 74°.

LaBounty: It’s still amazing to me.

Gallagher: One other thing. I don’t have this story intact, but it’s a very, very important story of Kelly’s. It happened in the – I’m not sure, it was the mid ‘50’s, probably ’56, when George Christopher was running for Mayor and they had the signs “Christopher for Mayor.” Well, somebody took one of those great big “Christopher for Mayor” signs and took five letters off the end of Christopher and so it said “Christ for Mayor,” and they put the sign up on Seal Rocks. Have you ever heard that story?

LaBounty: No.

Gallagher: So the patrons from the Cliff House would look down and there was this sign, “Christ for Mayor.” There was a big to-do as to how that got out there, of course, and the Chief of Police got [Johnny] Quarts and Reesink and those guys that they knew were watermen and Kelly’s Cove guys, because, you know, intelligence can tell you everything, even then. They said, no, they didn’t have anything to do with it, and then he said, “I don’t care about that. I want that off there.” So these guys had to go out and take it down. So, that’s got to be an interesting story that should be part of any… [Editor's note: one of the two pranksters has been independently named as Charlie Grimm, Kelly's Cove local and member of the SF Fire Department.]

LaBounty: Put in there – yeah.

Gallagher: Yeah, and I was going to talk to Dan Hountalas because he was proprietor of the Cliff House and see if he has a memory of the story, in order to confirm, because I didn’t see the sign.

LaBounty: That sounds like something that might have made the paper.

Gallagher: I think it made Herb Caen’s column and I don’t know where else that came out, where that might have been.

LaBounty: In a lot of Dennis [O’Rorke’s] photos I see a lot of graffiti on the wall. Sayings, and poems, things like that.

Gallagher: That always was occurring on the walls at Ocean Beach. The medium has changed a lot as well as the level of artistry. There was no spray paint then, or at least it was not popular. Then typically a stick was charred and then the charred end was used to inscribed sayings: typically some fearful thing about a holocaust or some other doomsday concept. You know, “pray to be saved from…” “Pray” was always written on the walls. Not a lot of pornography or terms that would be offensive to some. The ‘50’s were pretty prudish. I mean, we didn’t utter a great deal of profanity, and terms like “hodad” and “turkey” emerged as substitutes for “asshole” on the beach and in the water. That was one of the things that the older generation, probably unwittingly, imparted or affected. You wouldn’t say certain words around your parents, so if there was somebody that was forty-five years old in the crowd—it wasn’t as if you saw them as an adult or parent type, [but] the language was pretty much not [the] locker room kind of thing with peers. So that was always kind of interesting.

LaBounty: And then the benches... The wall has these natural little benches that have all been covered up by sand now, but there were actually homemade benches also put in the wall. Do you remember this?


Relaxing on a homemade bench in the Ocean Beach wall below the Cliff House, 1970s. - Photograph by Dennis O'Rorke

Gallagher: I remember it well. I’m not – I couldn’t tell you where they came from. Well, legend has it that the benches were built with lumber confiscated from nearby construction projects. The project was gradual so that a bench at a time was built. The same engineer oversaw the entire construction and with some assistance built all the wall benches.

LaBounty: Like homemade wooden…

Gallagher: Yeah, they were wooden and they were well constructed—I often sat on them. They were all along the wall. Whoever put them up had a plan and the design was compatible. But I’m not at all sure who or when they were built or added.

LaBounty: I’ll have to do more research and figure that out… Now does Playland play any part in your experience at Kelly’s or was it just a separate place – a whole separate thing – or did it mix with the Kelly’s experience? It was right across the street.

Gallagher: The Pie Shop was a major place we went to. I had a fondness for the Its-It bars, and Pronto Pup was very popular– so there were places. I don’t remember them all now, but…

LaBounty: For food and things.

Gallagher: For food. I remember as a little kid going to the Funhouse and all the way up and down the stairs to slide down the long slide. There was a separate crowd and the whole deal there did not have much overlap. Kelly’s could have existed with or without it. And, as I say, some of the beach vendors did provide food and, as I say, the Pie Shop, Its-Its, were very famous and more on hot days probably everybody ate an Its-It.

LaBounty: As far as other activity… I know we talked a little bit about wall ball, people hanging around the fires, swimming, mat and body surfing. There were people that would swim around Seal Rocks.

Gallagher: There was no contest or anything like that, but we did go – lots of times guys would go out outside the breakers and around in and there was occasional – I don’t – probably an isolated thing where somebody would swim over to Sutro Baths or something like that.

LaBounty: Fishing?

Gallagher: Fishing was always big. Crabbing was huge. A lot of the guys—Grunsen’s dad, O’Neill, Waldo Reesink—they would bring crab pots out and they’d go out, set those crab pots, surf, and then later in the evening go out and get the pots and crabs and then they’d build a fire and cook.

LaBounty: Everything right there.

Gallagher: Yeah.

LaBounty: You don’t need to go to Playland for your food.

Gallagher: Yeah, so, that was it. Another activity, someone would bring a football, pass it around, although I don’t remember football games being typical. Also, baseballs would be tossed around. In August, September, October you’d see footballs. In mid November maybe even a game of touch tackle or tackle even – things of that sort. But they weren’t regular; there wasn’t a group that came to Kelly’s to play football. It’s not that you’d go to Ocean Beach on Saturday to participate in a game. You would go to one of the local parks with guys who gathered to play those games or to play basketball in the playground or things of that sort. There were those other activities, but not as a regular pattern. Once in a while, a group would decide to run along the beach, particularly if the surf was not very good, or accessible.

LaBounty: I saw some film footage of Jack O’Neill with a little sailboat – not boat, but on wheels on the beach. Did you ever see that? What would you call that? It had wheels and a whole iron or metal structure and it basically was sailing down the beach. I don’t know what you’d call that.

Gallagher: A desert sailor or something. Mark Grunsen’s dad had all kinds of little things, but he had little sleds that they’d make and he’d get his kids in those things – maybe have an inner tube on there – and he’d take them and run with them. That’s what he did. He went in the water a little bit, but mostly he was playing with his kids up and down the beach. And skimboards were another segment that were used out there. There were two or three guys that they were very good at it. Bill Barrington – that was his best thing on the beach. Little circular discs and then throw it in the water and jump on it. They were called skimboards, and as the tail of a wave just a few inches deep would sweep along the beach, they would run alongside of the receding wave and flip the skimboard on top and with their momentum sail on top of the water for forty, fifty feet, and sometimes further. It required timing, balance and was fun. When you did it wrong, you ended up on your butt.

LaBounty: When did you join the Fire Department?

Gallagher: 1962.

LaBounty: ’62. When did you stop hanging out at Kelly’s? When did you leave the city? I’m sure you went back and forth.

Gallagher: Well, it wasn’t like all of a sudden one day…

LaBounty: I just figure having a life and a job and all that…

Gallagher: That’s right. Initially, in the ‘50’s, I started having a lot of time off in the daytime and I worked Monday through Thursday evening. I went to work at four o'clock in the afternoon, got off at eight in the morning. I went to school for a couple of hours, then I went to the beach. I had four days off – Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and then didn’t have to be back to work until Monday at four, so, quite often in that period I would go down to Santa Cruz because Santa Cruz was where I really began to learn how to surf and surf more efficiently. So that routine was attractive, and so my time at Kelly’s was limited for the most part to midweek. In the late summer and early fall the surf at Kelly’s would often be great, so we stayed in SF. Occasionally, we’d have pretty good spring surf too – so, obviously, if I was around Kelly’s I would surf there.

I would see friends, at school, around the neighborhood, and hear the latest surf news. I was living on Arguello [Boulevard] and Fulton [Street]. I would ride out to the beach almost every day and then down the Great Highway, around Lake Merced and back. That was a standard route. So, if I got out there and I saw some good surf, I’d keep running back home and get the board and was out in the water. But mostly that was not happening a lot. It was mostly confined to the seasons and some weekends or periods that we did get a break or such. A swell would come in and wouldn’t be all screwed up by swells coming from five or six different directions.

LaBounty: And then so it just tapered off a little bit, right? You were also a runner, right?

Gallagher: That started really in the late ‘60’s/early ‘70’s – actually early ‘70’s. I mean, I always ran. One of the things we did – we’d go to Kelly’s and the surf would, you know, we’d be waiting for a tidal change or something. We would run. There was a whole bunch of us. Most of would run at least to Lincoln Way from Kelly’s. I think that was about a mile and we’d go down and six to eight of us, more than that, and sometimes we’d run further on down to some other – I don’t know where we selected. There were a couple of places where there was some kind of landmark there – we’d run to there and come back and – so there were a lot of physical things and running was one of them. It wasn’t like later…

LaBounty: Later in the ‘70’s, the whole boom of running.

Race on Ocean beach at Kelly's Cove, 1970s - Photograph by Dennis O'Rorke

Gallagher: Yeah, then we ran four or five, eight, ten, twenty miles or longer and at the beach you might run, I’d say, the longest run we ever went on was two miles and most of it was probably – most of the running I remember was from Kelly’s to Lincoln and back. I think that was the standard route that we’d do. But sometimes you’d do that a couple of times, you know, and do it now and then an hour later, if the surf hadn’t gotten better we’d go running again.

LaBounty: In the ‘70’s, though, you’d go to Kelly’s if the surf was good or somebody told you it was.

Gallagher: Right. And it was definitely less frequent and by the end of the ‘70’s I pretty much – oh excuse me, early in the ‘70’s – I started into a graduate program at UCSF [University of California, San Francisco] in 1970 and my surfing pretty much came to a halt.

LaBounty: So, the last years that you were hanging out at Kelly’s, before you go to graduate program, had you felt like it was different there?

Gallagher: Oh, much different.

LaBounty: How did it change?

Gallagher: Well, the population, first of all, had quadrupled, more than quadrupled – I mean, it went from maybe having fifty or so people – now, this is a regular day – to almost always having a couple hundred around it seemed like. But, they weren’t always on the beach. A lot of the kids would come out, get in their cars, and just watch for the waves. A lot of the surfers never got out of their cars if they didn’t have to. Before, there was always a fire on the beach and that drew everybody down and early on you’d go down and you’d sit around, talk the beach, often guessing if the surf was going to be any good. Speculation about how the tide would affect the waves, or changes in the wind. Then some would want to go down to Pedro [Point, over to Bolinas. Then urging others to carpool to one of the spots if they thought the day was going to be terrible. So, surfing was the number one topic for surfers early on and later it was all fractured. You might have a couple of friends and so there were all these fractured groups and there wasn’t a central place where everybody went to communicate. So, it was more people, less a community in its cohesiveness, at least, and more drugs.

LaBounty: More drugs. Yeah, it was more of a drug town.

Gallagher: Big time.

LaBounty: Surfers or everybody there?

Gallagher: Well, everybody. I mean, the culture had awakened to marijuana and a lot of those drugs and then also heroin and all kinds of…

LaBounty: Was it rougher because of all that down there? Sketchier? Or was it just part of the popular thing and…

Gallagher: Most of the time the surfers were not doing a lot of drugs, but some were. Some kids were taking LSD and going out surfing.

LaBounty: That sounds like a bad idea.

Gallagher: Sounds like a terrible idea to me, but there were kids that did that. Smoking weed and going out, you know, I saw that a couple of times. Now, some of the kids sniffed glue and, I mean, I don’t know if they went out surfing, but I saw some of the best surfers in the game. Usually it was a Friday night. By this time I’d gotten a little bit older so I wasn’t hanging around. That was the other thing. The parties I was going with were guys who were more my age and that was a noticeable thing. Now, sometimes some of the families they had kids and the kids would be there, but mostly the continuity – the age thing had separated a lot. Because many of my good friends still only went to Kelly’s and we socialized together and that was how I knew when the surf was good because they were telling me.

LaBounty: I ask everybody this – how did Kelly’s get its name? What have you heard about it?

Gallagher: A bunch of years ago I would have said that it’s clear that it was “Old Man Kelly,” and now I’ve seen the pictures and, so… My guess is it depended on who you were and how you got to know the place and so some people had this story about Kelly.

LaBounty: What was the story? Just for the record. I mean, what you’ve heard.

Gallagher: Oh, that this guy that was a regular out there named Kelly and occupied the beach – died out there – and that’s how the place got to be called Kelly’s.

LaBounty: And what the conflicting theory?

Gallagher: Well, the signboards that said Kelly’s Tires and that’s clearly – I mean, that a document and something that’s easier to understand – and we do know that people make references to landmarks and so that’s a very convincing argument because of all my background as a scientist and things of that – Dennis’s pictures and so forth. It’s hard to refute that that wasn’t, at least for some people, the reference point on how that got to be used.

Kelly Tires billboard below Sutro Heights, possibly the origin of the Kelly Cove name. - Courtesy of Mary Courtwright Collins

LaBounty: I’ve got some news for you. I was totally on board with you, I mean, the way you’re thinking – that’s the way I thought and I hear “oh, mystical guy, Kelly, whatever,” you know. I’d go, like, “aaaah, I don’t know.” Kelly’s Tire billboard that seemed like that makes more sense. Mark Gunson, in doing his research, came across a newspaper article from 1938, which is just about the right time, about a man named Sam Kelly and in the article he comes in from the water, has a heart attack and dies on the beach. There was a heat wave at the time. The article said he was a regular, every day he swam the Seal Rocks and, unfortunately, he came in, people were concerned about him and they called for the police and he died on the beach. His name was Sam Kelly in 1938. So, now I’m, like, ohhhh, that sounds exactly like the story everybody said. So, I don’t know. It could be either now.

Gallagher: Oh, is that right?

LaBounty: Yeah.

Gallagher: I did not know how long that billboard – the Foster & Kleiser — they were the advertisers and they had billboards everywhere, in quite a few vacant lots, particularly if they were strategically located, and that one certainly was. I knew enough that the histories of both of these events occurred. Now, like so many things, more than one thing influences people and to try to separate them at this point in time is…

LaBounty: Yeah, it’s, like, pick your story. They’re both good and they’re both kind of correct.

Gallagher: And I’m sure they both influenced people, you know. I would suspect that the old man Kelly reference is to somebody who has a stronger bond to the beach itself, probably that was an influence, but to the average person who went out to the ocean maybe once or twice a decade…

LaBounty: Right. Say “I’ll meet you at the Kelly’s billboard.” And I like the Kelly – the old man Kelly – because it’s a character, right? And it’s good to have a character attached to this place that seems to have character, as well, or have a history of character. Do you have any characters? Anybody you remember at the beach that was particularly interesting or kind of an outsider in some kind of interesting way or… Probably many.

Gallagher: Many. I mean, Carol has to be one of the, you know longer ones that have lasted through my lifetime.

LaBounty: And what would you say makes Carol an interesting – I mean people call her “Queen of the Beach” and things like that. What makes her interesting?

Gallagher: Well, her presence there over a long period of time. Her use of the beach. Sunning and swimming, and playing, and she also has a philosophy. Look, she rides her bicycle around town and she’s had hip transplants, she’s been hit, run down. She has her own garden on La Playa. She’s definitely a person that doesn’t fit any standardization of our era other than counter-culture. There are other people like Carol, but she’s very unique. A bright person who, early on, very early on, selected a way of life that was going to keep her from the mainstream and she wanted no part of the mainstream.

LaBounty: And longevity, right?

Gallagher: Yeah, she’s eighty years old and she’s been at the beach consistently since her teens. I don’t know if you know the story. One of her sons was hit by a car out there and seriously impaired, so, I mean, she’s got her life was on the beach. She lives on La Playa and that is part of her attachment to Ocean Beach. She didn’t go away to school; she didn’t go into the Fire Department or have a bunch of other things going on in her life…

LaBounty: And that house is very colorful.

Gallagher: And she’s taken in all kinds of people that have been down in their lives and worked with them and she’s a strong lady. That’s her life. Another great character of Kelly’s would be Charlie Grimm. I guess when you talk about dominant Kelly’s personalities, Charlie Grimm has to be another terribly important person. When he was a regular out there much of his life was surfing, but he did other notable things, such as his career as an SF firefighter. Have you heard the story about the boat that Mojas, Grimm, and Lundquist were sailing to Santa Cruz?

LaBounty: They pretty much had to bail at Kelly’s, right?

Gallagher: Well, they were going to Santa Cruz – I didn’t really know that until I interviewed Dave. I remember the deal. But, they got to Kelly’s and there was good surf, so they decided to…

LaBounty: Take a break.

Gallagher: Yeah, take a wave and they still argued about who was the tiller and all the rest of the stuff, but anyway they got a brief ride and then the thing exploded on them and snapped their rudder or the main sail, the mast, and they were lucky they weren’t killed. The damn boat weighed a ton and another interesting aspect of the story is that Dave, who is an excellent mechanic, had previously built a boat while in Hawaii. He was in the Navy. He had made the US Navy swimming team and they got this plush assignment. The Korean War was going on at the time and these guys were stationed in Hawaii, which allowed them to have a good time. Dave designed and built a mini sailboat so that he could study various breaks around the island. They knew there were a lot of unsurfed beach breaks in the islands, so he wanted to have a boat that they could go around and look and check these things out, so he designed and built a small sailboat. He studied nautical designs, calculated measurements, and the result was his first boat.

When the boat was finished, they had a traditional Hawaiian launching, chanting, blessing and prayers, and then he made a trip around Oahu. Later, when Dave told the story to Charlie [Grimm] and some of the others when he got back to San Francisco, the response was “Let’s do that!” So, the project began. They built this boat. In fact, I saw the boat while it was under construction. It was in the basement of an old fire station on 10th Avenue. Charlie worked at the old location of Station 22 before it was moved to 16th Avenue and Irving Street. It was previously located on 10th between Judah and Irving. There was a large basement in the building, so that’s where they kept the boat. Charlie lived next door – so he would work on it on his day off. When it was finished, Dave, Rod, and Charlie took the boat to Sausalito, launched it, and came across the Gate, around Seal Rock towards Kelly’s. As they rounded Seal Rock, they saw some surf and they were going to go in to see if they could catch a wave. There was some debate as to the advisability, and then, of course, they found themselves inside the surf line, and were sailing into a wave. Those that saw them said the ride was spectacular until the end. They were photographed coming out of the water with the boat in tow. The photo showed of them landing and, of course, Charlie’s laughing, everybody’s laughing but Dave. He didn’t think it was so funny. It was his boat.

LaBounty: Yeah, do it yourself type people, right? I mean, talk about making surfboards and all that stuff.


Ted Pearson shaping a surfboard, 1950s - Courtesy of James Gallagher

Gallagher: They all made their own boards. It wasn’t until O’Neill opened the shop on Wawona [Street] that homemade boards declined. Interesting fact, Dave built out of his house on Sloat [Boulevard] so that Jack could make and sell his surfboards. That was before he opened the Wawona shop. Jack first started selling wetsuits and boards out of his home on Sloat and Dave helped him build out the garage so he could make the surfboards there. Prior to O’Neill’s commercial surfboards, there were a few others that were making surfboards, most notably Ted Pearson. Ted Pearson made a few boards. Ted is probably the most important single person in this whole area in terms of fostering board surfing. Kamaka got people to the beach – was probably the single biggest influence in getting folks into the ocean water. I have found that more people from the San Francisco area trace their introduction to surfing to Cliff Kamaka, Ted Pearson, or someone who traced their introduction to one of the two. That’s of course excluding those who moved here with surfing backgrounds.

Ted Pearson had a surfboard construction business of a sort that predated O’Neill. Ted and a partner were buying balsa boards from Peru. They would get a $40 down payment from a client and then ordered the wood. The wood would come in and then they would shape it and apply a fiberglass coating. When it was ready they would contact the buyer and collect an additional $40 and the sale was completed. That’s the way they did things. They didn’t make too many of them – maybe two or three at a time.

In the mid ‘50s, most boards were being made by someone who rarely, if ever, shaped a surfboard before. Many were made in a wood shop, home garage, or someplace accessible without close supervision. Wood shavings were messy, but the smell of resin is potent as well as toxic. As far as design, much of it was experimental and often someone ordering a surfboard would describe what they wanted as “my cousin saw somebody make them like this before” – “he was at Hawaii,” “once I saw this,” and so they were all one-time experimental projects. So the boards looked quite different. On the beach you’d see square backs and some with scags, some without scags. I mean every kind of imaginable board. Even small boards. So, as late as the mid ‘50s it was really an early stage and, of course, you saw a lot more mat surfing, which now has almost vanished in San Francisco. Then mat surfing was often how younger surfers got started, and quite a few women also mat surfed. Mats were a lot easier to pack around. One of the other conditions that restricted the growth of board surfing here was the ease of mat or body surfing. You could go out with a pair of fins, board a streetcar, or put them into the trunk of your car, and guarantee that you’re going to get some rides and have fun. If you packed your board out there, you might not even go in the water and, if you did, you might take that board about halfway out and then lose it and maybe try that, maybe get outside and take off of one wave and get wiped out within fourteen seconds and, so, it definitely, it didn’t have all the elevated caché it does today.

LaBounty: It wasn’t convenient in a lot of ways. When was the last time you were surfing?

Gallagher: The last time – I was in the Fire Department, and in 1989 we had surf rescue drill. I had a boogie board and I went out in the drill and I caught a couple of waves. By that time I was working with guys that didn’t know I surfed, and so “hey, he’s pretty good.”

LaBounty: You’d show them a little, huh?

Gallagher: Yeah, and I think that was the last time. Before that, probably 1973 I surfed. I hadn’t been surfing for a long time and I surfed in Hawaii. I went over there and I got me a board and I went out, got a couple of waves and got sunburned.

LaBounty: Thank you so much, Jim. This has been great.

Jim Gallagher surfing at Rockaway Beach in Pacifica, 1960s. - Courtesy of James Gallagher

[End Interview]

Introduction | Gallagher interview, page 1 | Gallagher interview, page 2




This project was made possible with support from Cal Humanities, an independent non-profit state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities. For more information, visit www.calhum.org.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this Web site do not necessarily represent those of Cal Humanities or the National Endowment for the Humanities.


Contribute your own stories about western neighborhoods places!

Page launched 9 November 2014.