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'The last thing you'd expect to find making wet suits are two gray-haired grandmas.'

August 14, 1986|CHARLES HILLINGER | Times Staff Writer

Bess Dopps, 76, and her sister, Meryl Herron, 67, never go near the water. It makes them seasick.

But that doesn't stop the two great-grandmothers from having hundreds of scuba-diver fans up and down the Pacific Coast--Navy divers, Coast Guard divers, state Fish and Game Department divers, fire department search-and-rescue team divers, commercial divers and weekend sports divers.

For 30 years, the two have been making personalized scuba-diving suits, fitting each customer, then cutting, gluing and sewing the neoprene and nylon. It takes them about five hours in their Long Beach shop to turn out one wet suit. They guarantee delivery in two weeks.

They also repair wet suits brought to the shop at 6458 Paramount Blvd. or left at specialty diving stores from San Diego to San Francisco and sent along to the sisters' shop.

They've made wet suits for Jacques Cousteau, for television actors and actresses and for divers as far away as Yugoslavia, Austria and Israel.

"People can't believe we're for real, two little old gray-haired women," said Herron amid tables piled high with wet suits in various stages of production or with old ones brought in for repair. "Old customers who haven't been in the shop in years stop by now and then and say, 'Oh, are you two still at it?' "

"We tell them we're not dead yet," Dopps said.

"Divers are crazy about Bess and Meryl," said John Patterson, 24, of Del Mar, a researcher at the Salk Institute who has been on diving trips halfway around the world wearing their scuba gear. "When you go to their tiny shop, it's like having your mom making something for you. Everybody I know swears they make the best diving suits anywhere."

Brodie Brickey, 40, skipper of a local charter diving boat and a customer at the shop for a dozen years, commented: "The last thing you'd expect to find making wet suits are two gray-haired grandmas. But you can't beat them. If a suit doesn't fit, take it back and by God, they'll make it fit."

Herron has three children, seven grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. Dopps has four sons, a dozen grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren. Don Hall, 24, one of Herron's grandsons, works in the shop with them, as does Dopps' husband, Dave, 76, who orders the supplies, keeps the books and even helps with the sewing a couple of hours a day.

The sisters were born in an Arizona copper-mining camp and moved to Long Beach in 1930.

Thirty years ago, a dive shop needed a sewer and Dopps got the job. A few months later the sisters opened their own custom wet suit business.

Today, M & B Designs (for Meryl and Bess) make an average of 10 wet suits a week. They have made thousands over the years.

"For the sport diver," Herron said, "a scuba suit may last 10 years or more if they take care of it. Commercial divers wear them out in a year or two."

"Scuba-diving is becoming more and more popular with each passing year," Dopps said. "When we first started, it was just men."

"Now," continued her sister, "many women enjoy the sport. Whole families are doing it, from little kids to senior citizens."

They make wet suits for infants as young as 2 and for divers in their 70s. Wet suits for the youngsters sell for as little as $30. For adult divers, they are $250 to $300.

"Bess and I get along just fine," Herron said. "We never argue and we really love what we're doing. That's why we're still at it."

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