Pasadenan by Birth, Father of Surf Media, dies at 83

Published : Monday, May 29, 2017 | 12:23 PM

John Severson

Pasadena-born John Severson, founder of Surfer Magazine and patriarch of modern surf media, died on Friday at his home outside Lahaina on Maui Island in Hawaii. He was 83.

In a New York Times report Sunday, his wife, Louise, reported he had leukemia.

Born in December 1933, Severson began surfing at age 13 after his family moved to San Clemente. Using a $50 film camera and a still camera, he soon began taking pictures of surfers and making films that he would show to his friends at home.

When he was drafted into the U.S. Army, Severson was stationed in Hawaii, where he continued surfing as a member of the Army surf team. It was there that he released his first film, “Surf.” Severson would join Bruce Brown, Bud Browne, and Greg Noll as surfing’s original filmmakers in the late 50s and early 60s, touring productions like “Surf Fever,” “Big Wednesday,” and “Going My Wave” up and down the California coastline.

Severson’s promotional artwork for his films led to his foray in surf publishing. In 1960, he designed a 36-page magazine composed of surf photos, cartoons, sketches, and more to advertise the release of “Surf Fever.” He would call it The Surfer, later becoming the Surfer Quarterly in 1961, and later, Surfer Magazine, the first major magazine devoted to wave riding.

“In this crowded world, the surfer can still seek and find the perfect day, the perfect wave, and be alone with the surf and his thoughts,” Severson wrote in the very first issue of Surfer.

A highly-talented visual artist, Severson received an M.A. in art education from Long Beach State College in 1956.

The success of the magazine eventually allowed Severson to recruit staff members including cartoonist Rick Griffin, photographer Ron Stoner, and editors Drew Kampion and Steve Pezman. The team became the veritable Mount Rushmore of surf media, with Severson himself as the architect.

“Before John Severson, there was no ‘surf media,’ no ‘surf industry’ and no ‘surf culture’ – at least, not in the way we understand it today,” Surfer editor Sam George wrote in 1999.

Severson sold the magazine in 1972 when it had about 100,000 readers and plenty of advertising. That year, he moved with his wife and two daughters to Maui, according to the Orange County Register.

In 2011, Surfer Magazine gave Severson a Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2014, Severson released “Surf,” a book of oil paintings, photographs, drawings and prints about surf culture.

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