From Wisconsin to WaikikiMan with local ties remembered as pioneer of beach and surfing culture
By: By Don Leighton, For The Telegram, Superior Telegram
The following is another “Have Fun or Get Out of the Way” column by award-winning Don Leighton and Mike Granlund and their alter egos, Lance Boyle and Billy Pirkola, which runs occasionally in The Superior Telegram.
Ah, the warm ocean breeze, the California sun, the scuba divers with their underwater cameras, the sand between your toes, the lifeguards and those who challenged the big waves on their surfboards — it was a carefree lifestyle for which most teenagers in the 1960s longed. What a time to be alive.
But what are the roots of the beach scene as it existed during that fabulous decade? Much of it was the brainchild of a Wisconsin man, and his nephew lives in Superior.
The distance between Wisconsin and Waikiki, Hawaii is 3,586 miles. That California beach mentioned could be any beach, but for discussion in this article, let’s use Santa Monica as a reference point, which is 1,572 miles from Wisconsin.
Thomas Edward Blake, Jr. was born March 8, 1902 in Milwaukee and spent most of his youth between Milwaukee, Washburn, Ashland and Detroit — not surfing hotspots. He was an excellent athlete, a free spirit and a perfectionist when it came to his sporting endeavors.
The event that laid the foundation for what was to come occurred early in Washburn. In the book “Tom Blake: The Uncommon Journey of a Pioneer Waterman,” Blake describes his first experience with surfing.
“When I was a child, maybe nine or ten years old, I saw a newsreel from Hawaii that was a Hawaiian surfing Waikiki. Just a short clip, but it left a very strong impression,” Blake said.
Blake was an 18-year-old just out of Washburn High School when a chance meeting at a Detroit movie theatre put him further along his path toward surfing.
It was at the movie theater that Blake met Duke Kahanamoku of Hawaii, the “Father of Modern Surfing.” Both were there to watch newsreel footage of the 1920 Olympics held in Antwerp, Belgium, where Duke won the 100-meter freestyle.
“As I look back on it,” Blake wrote in 1966, “I realize how much I was influenced by this first contact with the man who has become the best known personality in the history of surfing.”
Blake spent much of his early life in Hawaii beginning in 1924. He and Kahanamoku were best of friends and were recognized as the greatest surfers in the world. Florida later became a favorite haunt of Blake’s from 1957-64, where he revolutionized the role of life guards.
During 1920, Blake traveled the country by rail, usually on slow moving freights where his life was in danger from fellow riders or the police. He worked at the New York Stock Exchange as a runner of messages on floor for Charles Schwab, but he didn’t like the east coast and longed to go to the other side of the country. He arrived in the Golden State later that year.
During the Roaring ’20s, Blake won many swimming titles, finished second in a couple of races with legendary Johnny Weissmuller (who played Tarzan) and became known as one of the greatest swimmers in the United States.
Swimmers were given medals and ribbons in lieu of money, so in 1922 Blake began working in Hollywood to make money to survive. While working in the movies, he became a stunt double for Clark Gable in “Devil’s Island,” released in 1939. His last movie was “Wake Island,” starring John Wayne in 1942.
Beyond his work as a movie star and champion swimmer, Blake also made great contributions to the world of surfing and life-guarding.
Blake wrote the first book ever penned about surfing, “Hawaiian Surfboard,” in 1935. He invented the hollow surfboard and the dorsal fin, and he developed the waterproof casing which allowed for underwater filming.
If you’ve ever watched “Baywatch,” the floatation device the lifeguards carried was invented by Blake. His contributions and reforms regarding life-saving techniques of life guards are still utilized today. Experts believe thousands of lives have been saved since the 1920s because of Blake.
He was also a pioneer in exercise, training and nutrition for athletes. Blake was elected into the Surfer Hall of Fame in 1967 and the Swimming Hall of Fame in 1991. He and Duke Kahanamoku are the only surfer/swimmers to be inducted into both.
Dave Kampion, former editor of “Surfer, Surfing, Wind Surf and Wind Tracks” magazines realizes the value of Blake’s contributions.
“Tom Blake was a larger than life surf pioneer, a seminal force in the history of the sport,” Kampion said. “He almost single-handedly transformed surfing from a primitive Polynesian curiosity into a 20th century lifestyle. In the process, he was responsible for preserving much of surfing’s oral history as well as resurrecting the stream-lined boards of ancient times.”
During his later years, Blake would show up in his brother Bill’s backyard in Ashland. (Bill is the father of Superior’s Bob Blake.) Tom Blake had a camper in which he lived and would come and go without fanfare. He was a free spirit until the end.
Tom Blake died in 1994, but his legend will live on forever. Whenever you see a surfer, or underwater film footage, or lifeguards and their rescue equipment, remember Tom Blake. Without him, the world of surfing would be vastly different, or maybe nonexistent.
As far as the sand, the California sun and the ocean breezes, it can be safely said Blake had nothing to do with their creation. But what about the Beach Boys and other groups of the ’60s who sang of the beach culture? Without Blake and his innovations and influence, the beach lifestyle may never have been born.
The first annual “Tom Blake Board Across the Bay Race and Festival” will be held today through Sunday on Lake Superior’s Chequamegon Bay between Washburn and Ashland. There will be various water activities, and proceeds from the event will be used to construct a bronze statue of Blake standing in front of a classic longboard. For more information, e-mail email@example.com.
(Quotations in the article are from the book “Tom Blake: The Uncommon Journey of a Pioneer Waterman,” produced by The Croul Family Foundation and printed in 2001.)
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