Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Givin' Dewey His Due

This weekend the Surfing Heritage Museum begins an exhibition celebrating the life of Dewey Weber, a surfing legend, to coincide with release of Little Man on Wheels, a biography of Weber penned by Gerald B. Derloshon.

A South Bay institution, Dewey was a force to be reckoned with in the water and the surfboard industry. His low center of gravity (Dewey was only 5’3”) and wrestling physique served him well at a time when surfboards were transitioning from redwood to balsa to fiberglass. His skills and these boards ushered in a new era of surfing, namely hotdogging, and Dewey was on the front line of that movement. He parlayed his hotdogging skills in this budding environment to create the Weber Performer, the most successful selling longboard of all time.

I had gone to college in Malibu where Miki Dora, Johnny Fain, and Lance Carson had surfed with style and mad skills. In the South Bay, from Palos Verdes to El Segundo, Dewey set the tone. I soaked this all up while living in Manhattan Beach after college in the early 90s. Studying Bruce Brown films and learning how to ride a longboard in El Porto between Manhattan Beach and El Segundo, I was a student of longboard surfing and again, Dewey Weber was the style master.

I’d driven by his shop countless times but had never gone in, assuming he had retired or died long ago. One day, on a whim, I decided to check it out, if just to see some more pictures of Dewey surfing in the area. There was a young, friendly guy wandering around the shop who was very engaging and, while I couldn’t tell if he was an employee or just a big Dewey fan, it was clear he revered Dewey much more than I did. We got to talking and he informed me that not only was Dewey alive but he was in the shop. He motioned to the back of the store and I followed the wave of his hand, expecting to see an older version of the stud I’d seen so many pictures of, ripping up local waves. In fact, I was horrified by what I saw. Dewey looked like shit, like he’d been homeless half his life. I was actually afraid to approach him and introduce myself. Clearly, years of alcohol abuse had taken its toll.

Program for Dewey Weber Memorial
Not long after that, Dewey passed away. While not surprised, I was nevertheless sad to hear the news. In his honor, there was a big paddle out at Avenue C in Redondo Beach and I wanted to be a part of it. It was a classic surfer’s memorial: friends and family talking story, exchanging tears and hugs, followed by a paddle out, the spreading of ashes, and polished off with a free surf. 

I remember one story in particular (I don’t remember all of the specific details but surfers tend to exaggerate anyway so who cares). A friend of Dewey’s or perhaps a former team rider was drafted and sent to Vietnam. Not wanting to let go of the identity he left behind, he put a Surfboards by Dewey Weber sticker on the fridge at the NCO canteen. He endeared himself to other members of his unit throughout his tour by recounting his adventures of surfing with/for Dewey. Of course, when his tour ended, he went home and lost touch with many of the guys he served with. When one of those guys read of Dewey’s passing, he recalled the name but had forgotten it was because of a sticker on a beer fridge door. Nevertheless, he declared, “Dewey Weber died? Shit, I served with that guy in Vietnam!”

I was really surprised by the number of people who turned out for Dewey’s memorial and I’ll never forget seeing Greg Noll talking with Mickey Munoz after the free surf. I was grateful these two legends, among many others I’m sure, came to pay their respects.

My favorite Dewey Weber story speaks to the essence of the surfing lifestyle we all enjoy and admire but also quite eerily to Dewey’s ultimate demise. In Dewey’s own words: "The first day I surfed Malibu I was 11 years old. Billy Meng loaded me up in his '34 Ford pickup and took me.  We surfed, and then he got me a poor boy sandwich and said, 'You call this a poor boy.'  And he handed me a bottle of Coors and said, 'That's a surfer's beer, and you may have half that beer.'  And, Christ, that really lit my life on fire." 

2011 Weber Performer
The Weber name is alive and well in surfing today, carried on by Dewey’s son Shea who now runs the business. The Weber Perfomer, hatchet fin, team jackets and trunks -- all the things that made Dewey famous -- are all still there. The team in fact shaped a commemorative Performer for last year’s Sacred Craft exhibition that was auctioned off for charity (my review of the event can be found here). With the strength of the name, the board, and now the biography, I think it’s safe to say that the legend of Dewey Weber will continue to flourish for many many years to come.

Until next time, may your waves be head high and glassy.