Gary Silberstein Interview

Introduction | Silberstein interview

Gary Silberstein
Surfer of Kelly’s Cove at
Ocean Beach, San Francisco, California
Interview conducted by
Stephen “Woody” LaBounty
May 22, 2013

Interview Description — Gary Silberstein

Gary Silberstein was born in 1942 and grew up in San Francisco's Richmond District, the son of a dentist. He attended Lowell High School and first surfed at Kelly's Cove when he was around sixteen years old. He went into the water and immediately wiped out.


Kelly's Cove surfers Gary Silberstein and Jim Bonaldi, 2007. - Courtesy of Gary Silberstein

"Ocean Beach was/is a harsh mistress, as you know. I just progressively got more involved out there as I got better at surfing, and began to make friends and that became my crew."

Mr. Silberstein received his first surfboard from legendary Bay Area clothing manufacturer and family friend Ben Davis. He became a premed student at UC Berkeley, but spent a lot of his time escaping school to surf. "I had my schedule set up where I’d try to get no classes on Friday or get them done by noon so I could get out to Kelly’s and surf all weekend. Sometimes if it was good I’d cut classes Monday morning and surf. And I couldn’t figure out why I wasn’t doing well [in school], you know?"

Despite a harrowing and near-fatal experience being pulled out into the Golden Gate by a riptide in 1959, Mr. Silberstein never lost his love of the ocean. He went on to earn a doctorate in cell biology and biochemistry and for over thirty years worked as a research biologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, with excellent surfing nearby.

The interview took place at Mr. Silberstein’s house in Santa Cruz, California. It was recorded on a digital recorder, transcribed, and audited. Mr. Silberstein reviewed the interview and offered clarifying edits for incorporation. [Read the interview.]

Kelly's Cove has been a retreat for fitness-oriented San Franciscans from at least the 1940s. Tucked under the famous Cliff House restaurant, the curve of sand at the north end of Ocean Beach became a meeting place for cold-water swimmers, runners, and practitioners of calisthenics who used rocky outcrops and a nearby iron pier to exercise. After World War II, Kelly's Cove became an early body and board surfing spot. A dedication to physical development in a natural environment kept company with a companionable party atmosphere. One Kelly's bodysurfer, Jack O'Neill, opened a surf shop at the beach in 1952, and developed the first commercially available wetsuit in response to the frigid water of Ocean Beach. The O'Neill Company is now a leader in beach lifestyle sportswear and sells the majority of the world's wetsuits.

Beyond the roots of surf technology and commerce, Kelly's Cove visitors reflected and developed a California surfing ethos with roots in Polynesian culture as well as alternative and counterculture movements developing in postwar San Francisco.

Western Neighborhoods Project launched Tales from Kelly’s Cove to bring about a greater public understanding of the role a cold-water cove in San Francisco had in creating the world's view of surfing, and by association, California life.


Western Neighborhoods Project (WNP) is a California nonprofit organization formed in 1999 to preserve and share the history of western San Francisco. In 2013, WNP initiated the Tales from Kelly’s Cove project to collect and share the oral histories of men and women who have frequented the northernmost corner of San Francisco's Ocean Beach, an early surfing and community gathering spot. The primary objective of Tales from Kelly’s Cove is to increase public awareness of the area's nascent role in the history of California's surfing, fitness, and counterculture movements. More information on the project, photographs, and other Kelly’s Cove interviews can be found on this website.

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 interview do not necessarily represent those of Cal Humanities or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

About Oral History

Oral history is a field of study and a method of gathering, preserving and interpreting the voices and memories of people, communities, and participants in past events. Firsthand historical information is collected through recorded interviews between a subject and interviewer. The recordings are transcribed, edited for clarity, and reviewed by the interviewee for a final edit. The recordings and corrected manuscripts for the Tales from Kelly’s Cove interviews are held at Western Neighborhoods Project and other research collections for review and scholarly use. More on oral history principles and best practices can be found on the website of the Oral History Association: www.oralhistory.org.

Citation and Use

All uses of this manuscript are covered by a legal agreement between Western Neighborhoods Project and Gary Silberstein dated May 22, 2013. Copyright is shared between Gary Silberstein and Western Neighborhoods Project. The manuscript is available for research purposes. Excerpts up to 1000 words from this interview may be quoted for publication without seeking permission as long as the use is non-commercial and properly cited. Requests for permission to quote should be sent to Western Neighborhoods Project.

Recommended citation:

Gary Silberstein “Surfer of Kelly’s Cove at Ocean Beach, San Francisco, California” conducted by Stephen “Woody” LaBounty, Western Neighborhoods Project, San Francisco, California, 2013.

The digital recording files and transcript of this interview are available for research use at the Western Neighborhoods Project office. A copy of the transcript has also been deposited at the San Francisco History Center at the San Francisco Public Library.

Stephen “Woody” LaBounty
Western Neighborhoods Project
San Francisco, California
December 2014

[Read the interview.]

Introduction | Silberstein interview




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 16 December 2014.