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Bob Meistrell dies at 84; co-founder of surfwear firm Body Glove

Meistrell and his twin, Bill, made wetsuits that enabled surfers to stay in the water longer and more comfortably than ever before. The firm does more than $200 million in business each year.

June 17, 2013|By Steve Chawkins, Los Angeles Times
  • Bob Meistrell, right, and his twin brother, Bill, founded Body Glove International, which has grown into a $200-million business, selling wetsuits, surfwear, swimsuits, snorkels and cellphone covers.
Bob Meistrell, right, and his twin brother, Bill, founded Body Glove International,…

For Bob Meistrell, there was always something about the water.

After he and his brother, Bill, taught themselves to swim in a Missouri pond, one would man a bicycle pump on shore and the other would throw on a diving helmet fashioned from a 5-gallon vegetable can, a pane of glass, a scoop of tar and — connecting to the pump — a garden hose.

A few decades later, the identical twins, who moved to Southern California as teens, started a company whose wetsuits enabled surfers to stay in the water longer and more comfortably than ever before. Their accomplishments at Redondo Beach-based Body Glove International helped draw millions to a relaxed lifestyle that was once the province of macho young men who warded off the chill with oil-drenched sweaters.

At 84, Bob Meistrell died Sunday aboard his 72-foot yacht Disappearance off Catalina Island, where he was planning to help run a paddleboard race. The cause was a heart attack, family members said.

Bill Meistrell died of Parkinson's disease in 2006.

The two were "always down-to-earth water guys," said Steve Pezman, publisher of The Surfer's Journal, "but they became iconic personalities in the midst of a beach culture that emerged from California and rippled around the world."

Bob Meistrell was also an accomplished diver and diving teacher. He taught diving to celebrities, including Lloyd Bridges of TV's "Sea Hunt." In 1975, Meistrell was poking around the sea floor off Palos Verdes and discovered a 280-pound doughnut-shaped stone that, according to some scientists, resembled the kind of anchor used by Chinese sea vessels 2,000 years ago.

He also was avid about one-man submarines. Over the years, he and a partner built several subs named "Snooper," using them to search for crashed airplanes, shipwrecks and, when hired by local agencies, sewer pipe leaks. He was on a team that discovered a cache of gold coins from the Brother Jonathan, a paddle wheel steamer that sunk off Crescent City, Calif., in 1865.

In a 2007 interview with the Los Angeles Daily News, he expressed surprise that plunging thousands of murky feet in a cramped submersible didn't have wider appeal.

"I can't believe anybody doesn't want to do it," he said.

Born in Boonville, Mo., on July 31, 1928, Robert Fischer Meistrell was hours younger than his brother.

When they were 4, their investment banker father was murdered by a former business partner, Meistrell told The Times in 2006. The family moved west in the 1940s, landing in Manhattan Beach when the twins were 16.

The boys took to the ocean immediately. This time, they had a real diving helmet — purchased from a neighbor for $25 after a previous owner had drowned in it.

After graduating from El Segundo High School, Meistrell served in the Army at Ft. Ord on the Monterey Peninsula during the Korean War.

Meanwhile, the brothers' tiny surfing world was set to explode.

In 1951, Hugh Bradner, a UC Berkeley physicist, was testing wetsuit materials for Navy divers. He came up with a two-piece suit made from neoprene, a synthetic rubber patented by DuPont, and tested it himself in icy Lake Tahoe. When the Navy rejected the idea, it became declassified and Bev Morgan, a surfing buddy of Bill's, found Bradner's full report in a library at San Diego's Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

In 1953, the brothers rounded up $1,800 and bought into Morgan's Dive N' Surf shop in Redondo Beach, where wetsuits — however cumbersome and irritating — were slowly starting to sell.

"'Fifties surfers in general rejected the rubber suits as both uncomfortable and unmanly," wrote Matt Warshaw in the 2003 "Encyclopedia of Surfing," but the Meistrells persisted. They bought out Morgan and, like others along the beachfront, saw their sales rocket after the surfing movie "Gidget" was released in 1959.

"Surf movies, surf magazines, surf music — it all turned into a cultural expression that never calmed down," Pezman told The Times. With development of wetsuits and lighter-weight surfboards, the sport's popularity catapulted. In 1965, the Meistrells founded Body Glove.

It succeeded beyond "the wilder of our wilder dreams" Bob Meistrell once said.

The company, owned almost entirely by family members, does more than $200 million in business annually, marketing not just wetsuits but swimsuits, snorkels, sportswear and niche items like cellphone cases and icepack wraps. Its chief competitor over the years has been O'Neill, the Santa Cruz-based surfwear empire started in the 1950s by Jack O'Neill.

Meistrell was active in water sports even at the end of his life.

In 2009, he dived 81 feet for his 81st birthday. Because it was also his late brother's birthday, he doubled it — and added 10 feet for good measure.

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