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L.J. Richards: Gentleman Surfer

By February 17, 2021Stories

John “Little John” Richards

was born in 1939 and raised in Oceanside, and has been one of San Diego County’s most enduring and respected surf figures. In a career spanning six decades and several continents, he has traveled and competed in surf events throughout the world.

L.J. grew up just a few blocks from the ocean and found himself hanging out at the Pier, where he regularly body- and mat-surfed. The Oceanside lifeguards had just formed a junior lifeguard program, and L.J. and a handful of youngsters joined under the watchful eye of Byron Jessup and Doug Tico. Soon the pint-size kid was hauling a 90-pound hollow, finless paddleboard into the water and catching waves on it. He was hooked on surfing from the start.

Phil Edwards, already one of the most notable surfers in California, was a year ahead of L.J. at Oceanside High School, and the two became fast friends. Phil was shaping and selling balsa boards in his garage and L.J.’s mom purchased a 9’6” Phil stick for her young son. A few years later L.J. won the 1963 men’s title at the U.S. Championships in Huntington Beach on an Edwards foam model. He still has that board today.

L.J. with his treasured Phil Edwards board at Oceanside Pier. Richards still has the pristine triple-stringer on which he won the U.S. Surfing Championship in 1963. “But surfboard design, including longboards, have progressed significantly since the mid-1960s. Today I am partial to my Takayama boards.” Photo: Todd Saunders.

Richards was really hitting his stride in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. This shot was taken at the Oceanside Pier by Surfer magazine founder John Severson in the early 1960s and was made into a popular postcard.

“I never knew this photo existed, and when I was in Biarritz, France, for a surf event years ago I happened to run into Miki Dora. Suddenly he remembered that he had this picture of me and Phil that he had been carrying around with him for decades. He quickly went to a photo shop and had a copy made for me.” Phil Edwards, unknown, and L.J. at Terramar, 1953. Photo: Miki Dora.

It was the era of the longboards, and John’s small stature was at times a challenge: “All the top guys were bigger — Joey Cabell, Phil Edwards, Miki Dora, Mike Doyle — taller and stronger. One exception was Bobby Patterson. He was small, like me.” As his skills continued to improve, he earned a nickname — the locals dubbed him “Little John,” to distinguish him from the other “Johns” in the line-up. That got shortened to “L.J.,” and that suited him just fine.

At right, from left: L.J., Phil Edwards, and Hevs McClelland. “This was on my first trip to Hawaii, in 1958. I had just turned 19 on this day. On the flight over I was on a plane with Pat Curren. I had known about him as a surfer and shaper from WindnSea and all, but, both of us not being talkative guys, we never spoke during the long flight. Later on I heard that he saw me catching a nice wave on the North Shore, and he said ‘Who is that little guy?’

At the World Contest at Manly Beach, Australia, 1964. “It was a really great trip. I was rooming with Joey Cabell, and Aussie filmmaker Paul Witzig was our official surf guide. Unfortunately, I got smacked in the face by my board and the doctors had to stitch me up before the finals began. The best I could do was place fourth, but it was a shame because the waves at Manly really suited me — they were a lot like Tamarack.” Photo: Jack Eden

“In 2000 when we reunited for a celebration of the 1964 contest, there was a post-event banquet and we were treated to film footage of the original contest. Mike Doyle and I were sitting at the table across from each other, and as we watched, we looked at each other and agreed: Mick Dooley had been the best surfer that day. I think he actually came in fifth in the event, but after seeing the films at the banquet, we had no doubt that he should have been the winner originally.”

“One day John Severson drove down to Swami’s and found me in the parking lot and asked if he could use this photo of me on the cover of Surfer magazine. He had shot it from the Oceanside Pier on a good day, so I gave him permission to use it. I thought that was nice of him to go to all that trouble to track me down and get my o.k.” The Surfer, vol. 3 no. 4. Photo: John Severson.

At age 18 L.J. qualified as a lifeguard for the state of California, a seasonal commitment he kept for 28 years. In 1963 he began his career as a fireman for the city of Encinitas, retiring in 2001. Said Richards: “It was probably the best thing that happened to me — a great job. I enjoyed it, and especially the humanitarian aspect of being able to help people.”

Legend line-up! Since 1985, the Oceanside Longboard Surfing Club has hosted a surfing contest in August, drawing top competitors from the West Coast and Hawaii. At the Second Annual Oceanside Longboard Surfing Club Contest in 1986, from left: Mike Hynson, Dewey Weber, Skip Frye, L.J., Ilima Kalama, Buffalo Keaulana, Herbie Fletcher, David Nuuhiwa, Phil Edwards, Donald Takayama, and Ben Aipa. (Note: missing from photo is Nat Young.) Photo: ©Lori Rafferty.

Over the years, L.J. has been consistently recognized for his achievements and contributions to surfing: In 1990 he was the recipient of the Oceanside Longboard Surfing Club’s annual LeRoy Grannis Waterman’s Award for his dedication to the sport of surfing and to the respect for, and care of, the ocean. In addition, he was inducted into the International Surfing Hall of Fame in 1991, and in 2006 was honored with a plaque on the Surfing Walk of Fame in Huntington Beach. To quote longtime friend and female trailblazer Linda Benson, “He’s truly one of the finest gentlemen in surfing, and definitely one of the greatest stylists of all time.”

Today L.J. Richards and his wife Kim live in Carlsbad, and they keep in active contact with an incredible number of surfing friends. They have three daughters and nine grandchildren — all of them sports-minded and ocean-oriented.

The California Surf Museum is honored to have L.J. Richards as one of our esteemed Advisors.

“When I was married and starting a family, I realized that seasonal lifeguarding and occasional contest winnings weren’t going to support us. Fortunately, Don Hansen gave me a job representing Hansen Surfboards. In the beginning Linda Benson and I were promoting Makaha Skateboards, even though I didn’t think I was much of a skater.” L.J. also surfed for Hobie and Hawaiian Pro Designs. L.J., Don Hansen and Linda Benson. Photo: ©Lucia Griggi.

Written by Jane Schmauss, CSM Historian, with input from L.J. Richards.