Surfer Walk of Fame inductee Leininger was surfing stalwart
by Mike Purpus
John Leininger almost certainly has sold more surfboards than anyone else in the South Bay’s storied surf industry.
Shortly after graduating from Bishop Montgomery High School in the mid-’60s, Leininger went to work for Walt Slike and Jim Wells at Skeg Surf Shop at 1st Street and Hermosa Avenue, in Hermosa Beach. A new, clear surfboard cost $80.
Subsequently, shaper Rick Stoner asked Leininger to manage his new shop on Pacific Coast Highway in Hermosa Beach so he could keep his lifeguarding job. When Stoner died of cancer, the shop was acquired by the Hamilton family, which also owned Reef Surf on Hermosa Avenue.
John Leininger stayed on as manager until 1979, when he joined Shaper Phil Becker, glasser Steve Mangiagli and pinstriper Dave Hollander in opening Becker Surf on Pier Avenue in downtown Hermosa Beach.
On Saturday, August 20, Leininger’s will be recognized for his five decades of surfing and work in the surf industry with induction into the Hermosa Beach Surfer Walk of Fame. He will be joined by former pro surfer and big wave rider Ted Robinson, former pro and Rip Curl USA CEO Kelly Gibson and former Hermosa councilman and pioneer surfer Chip Post.
Despite his involvement in surf apparel, Leininger never conformed to the surfer look, preferring ‘50s dress and a handlebar mustache. In the ‘60s he could have teamed up with similarly clean-cut dressers and surfboard shapers Phil Becker, Mike Eaton and Mike McIntire for jobs at Disneyland.
In his early years, Leininger was the president of the Bay Area Surf Club and at 73 years old remains an ambassador for the sport.
Leininger grew up in Torrance. He was a member of Bishop Montgomery High School’s second graduating class and then moved across the street from Mickey’s Deli, at 1st Street and Hermosa Avenue.
He started surfing in In ‘58 on a 9-foot Velzy/Jacobs balsa surfboard. He quickly hooked up with Topaz and Sapphire Street surfers John Joseph, Bob Moore, Collie Ragland and John Teague.
“In 1960 we formed the Bay Area Surf Club and held our meetings in a house behind the Redondo Store on Sapphire and Catalina. I placed 5th in the first big contest held in Santa Monica,” Leininger recalled. The skills that made Leininger a successful store manager also him the go-to guy for organizing club meetings, events and surf contests up and down the coast.
“In the ‘60s surf clubs were a major part of the surf culture. Surfing wasn’t the individual sport it is today. You surfed for a surf club, earning points for your club along the way. You got a trophy and your club got a trophy. The top six clubs competed at Malibu toward the end of the season. They would clear all three points while you surfed against five other surfers for 20 minutes.”
In the late ‘60s, San Diego-based, Windansea Surf Club began stealing hot surfers from all the other surf clubs. So Leininger went to work forming a super surf club combining the Bay Area Surf Club with Haggerty’s Surf Club and The Dewey Weber Surf Syndicate Team. Unfortunately, the super club fell apart before next big Malibu Surf Club Invitational Contest.
In the early days, Leininger recalled, all the surf shops made their boards in the back of their shop and sold them in the front of their shops. The South Bay began to look like “Surf City” when all the top surfer board builders began opening local shops in the South Bay.
Bing and Rick Surfboards were originally right next to Juicy James Cafe on the corner of 14th Street and Strand. They were very successful until the city forced them out because of all the foam shaving blowing down the Strand. Both shops relocated to Pacific Coast Highway.
In the mid-’60s all the surfboard manufacturers came out with the signature models. Rick came out with the best selling model of all, the UFO.
“The UFO was designed by a guy learning how to surf from Nebraska named John Sandera,” Leininger said. “He was good with his hands and design so he went to work making a surfboard that had the best ideas of all the other models, putting a shallow concave on the deck of the tail as his own signature. He cut out letters from a bunch of Rick Stickers to make his own UFO Surfboards Sticker. UFO stood for Unidentified Floating Object. At that time, all the best surfers were riding Marine Street in Manhattan Beach, where Leininger surfed. Ronnie Garner was winning all the local contests. He took one look at Leininger’s UFO board and came running into Ricks. Garner got Phil Becker to make him a UFO, and that started a stampede into the shop.”
Leininger was selling Becker’s boards as fast as the glass dried. Surfboard dealers from all over the country were ordering Rick boards. Rick started making the Dru Harrison Model, then the Barry Kanaiaupuni Model and finally the Dru Harrison/Barry Kanaiaupuni Pin Tail. Rick opened a second shop in Hawaii. He was making over 100 boards a week, and John worked every day for four months without a day off.
Becker and Leininger became best friends. “Phil was working as hard as I was keeping up with all the orders. He never complained, shaping more clean, quality surfboards than any other shaper in the world. Phil is a shaping genius, always incorporating new ideas like the UFO, The Mini UFO, The Bonzer and the Auga Surfboard. He was on schedule every day. You could set your watch to when he ate the same tuna sandwich and tofu for lunch.
John and his lovely wife Karen were both high school teachers. John taught in Long Beach, and Karen taught in Compton.
“When I quit teaching to start Becker Surfboards with my friends Phil Becker, Dave Hollander and Steve Mangiagli, my teacher friends said I was crazy,” Leininger said. “I was giving up a cushy teaching job with all the holidays and summer vacation. But my wife Karen backed me all the way.”
“I was to be in charge of the shop retail,” Leininger said. “Phil was in charge of shaping. Steve ran the glass shop, and Dave Hollander was the CEO. We were the first surf shop on Pier Avenue in downtown Hermosa and were an instant success thanks to the quality workmanship on every board. We kept getting bigger and bigger, opening up new shops up and down the coast. It was becoming scary, going to huge trade shows, ordering millions of dollars in merchandise that we wouldn’t get for six months.”
“In 2006 shaper and good friend Dan Bendickson fell. Dan had taught Phil how to shape, and I knew Dan from the early 60s. Dan had cancer and knew he didn’t have too much time left. He told Phil and me that life is too short and no matter how much money you have it can all go bad in a second. Phil sold his interest in Becker soon after and moved to the North Shore. Dave Hollander also wanted to get out. I was getting burned out after more than 50 years in the front of the surf shop, so we sold out to Billabong. They had just gone public on the New York Stock Exchange and had a lot of money to spend. They were soaking up every surf related company on the coast, including Sector 9 Skateboards, RVCA, and Dakine Surf Products. I stayed for the first three years to help Billabong make the transition before retiring. Phil, Dave and I sold out, but Steve Mangiagli still owns the glass shop.”
Leininger can no longer surf because of a bad back. But he rides his bike four days a week, early in the morning, checking out surf spot from the Santa Monica Pier to Torrance Beach, chatting with locals, talking about the good old days when a buck was a buck, and a wave was a wave.
“Surfing and the surfboard business are not the same anymore. For us, it was a lifestyle that maybe 20 percent of all the surfers still live. The rest think it’s just another sport. The kids are all playing video games because they don’t have the patience to learn to surf. Surfing is hard, and you have to work at it,” he said. ER