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Mary Kerwin Riehl, 91; Won Women's Surfing Title in 1939

March 27, 2004|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Mary Kerwin Riehl, who won the women's division of the 1939 Pacific Coast Surfing Championship and who is the only female surfing pioneer honored on the Hermosa Beach Surfers Walk of Fame, has died. She was 91.

Riehl died March 16 in a Santa Maria, Calif., care facility after suffering a stroke several weeks earlier.

One of three girls in the Kerwin family of nine children, it was only natural that Riehl would take to the water at an early age: Her family's home was on the floor above their bakery on Pier Avenue, less than a half block from the beach.

"You could spit out the window at the water, and that was our playground," recalled Riehl's brother Ted Kerwin, who still lives in Hermosa Beach.

"We were born and raised with our feet in the ocean, all nine of us," said Riehl's sister Emma Halibrand of Westchester.

As kids, Ted Kerwin recalled, they rode waves on everything from belly boards made of scrap lumber to discarded wooden ironing boards before progressing to much larger and heavier paddleboards and solid-wood surfboards.

In 1934, Riehl's older brother John founded the Hermosa Beach Surfing Club, whose 14 original members included his brothers Joe, Jim, Fred and Ted. Mary, however, could not join the club: It was a strictly male organization, although she represented the club in contests.

When Riehl started surfing in the 1930s, the sight of a woman riding the waves was a rarity.

"There were very, very few women surfers," said Ted Kerwin. "It wasn't the thing to do for many women."

"She was the best I saw at that time, which wasn't really that earth shaking," said Riehl's other surviving brother, Jim Kerwin, a resident of Oak View, near Ojai. "She just rode straight in; there were no fancy maneuvers like they do today."

Jim Kerwin still has the 12-foot, 65-pound paddleboard he made out of pine and quarter-inch plywood for his sister in 1939.

It's the same board she used to win the Pacific Coast Surfing Championship in Long Beach. She also used it to compete in other contests, including the 1939 national paddleboard and surfing championship in Long Beach: She placed first in the women's division for the quarter-mile national paddleboard championship, with a time of four minutes, 32 seconds.

The gregarious Riehl -- "I always called her Molly-O because she was a typical Irish gal," said Ted Kerwin -- loved all sports and was an avid tennis player. "She was in the middle of everything," he said.

She was born in Hermosa Beach in 1912, two years after her Irish-immigrant father launched the family's bakery business.

A 1931 graduate of Redondo Union High School, Riehl married her husband, Ward, a Southern California Gas Co. employee, in 1934. Although she continued to surf after her two children were born, Riehl gave it up after World War II.

Riehl's nephew, Scott Kerwin, said that when quizzed about her early surfing days at family reunions, his aunt wasn't much interested in the subject.

"She was more interested in what was going on now than what was going on in the past," he said.

Riehl was too ill to attend the ceremony last March when she and her brothers were inducted into the new Surfers Walk of Fame on the city's pier. But, Ted Kerwin said, "she thought it was fantastic."

In addition to her two brothers and sister, Riehl is survived by her daughter, Joan Garcia of Santa Maria; her son, Bob Riehl of Morgan Hill, Calif.; four grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.

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