Bob Wise, San Francisco surfing pioneer, dies at 74

Bob Wise’s product line featured some of the coolest surfboards boards between San Francisco and Santa Cruz. Wise’s first shops were never right on the beach, but surfers still found him.

Bob Wise’s product line featured some of the coolest surfboards boards between San Francisco and Santa Cruz. Wise’s first shops were never right on the beach, but surfers still found him.

Brant Ward, Staff / The Chronicle

In the mid-1960s, Bob Wise was a champion swimmer on a Lowell High School team that trained in the cold saltwater at Fleishhacker Pool, out by San Francisco Zoo. From there, it was a natural progression to the even colder saltwater at the end of Sloat Boulevard in the Pacific Ocean.

Wise borrowed a board and taught himself to surf. Then he taught himself to make his own boards in the family garage, using tools supplied by his dad, who built wooden boats for a living.

He personalized it by designing a label reading “Wise Surfboards” that he sealed between the wood and the fiberglass coating. It was the start of a product line that featured some of the coolest boards between San Francisco and Santa Cruz, sold out of his own shop along the Great Highway, starting in 1968.

A sole proprietor and individualist who ran Wise Surfboards for 51 years, Wise died Dec. 22 of kidney failure and pneumonia, said his wife, Patricia Wise. While never seriously injured in all his years of surfing, he long suffered from a rare blood disease that required regular transfusions, and eventually dialysis. He was 74.

“Bob brought independence to surfing at a time when it was being co-opted by big business,” said Dr. Mark Renneker, a big wave surfer and physician who was the subject, along with Wise’s shop, of an exhaustive 1992 New Yorker article that helped put Ocean Beach on the national map for surfing.

Bob Wise looks at some longboards at his store.

Bob Wise looks at some longboards at his store.

Brant Ward, Staff / The Chronicle

Wise’s first shops were never right on the beach, but surfers still found him. Many of the best surfers reluctantly needed a day job and Wise provided employment.

“Many of us came to the shop because Bob would entertain us,” said Renneker, who earned the nickname “Doc” from Wise, a notorious nicknamer. “He was accommodating to beginners who were sincere, but he could tell a poser from a mile away and would just eat them up.”

For a long time, Wise Surfboards was the only serious and lasting surf shop in the city, and Wise had the necessary credentials as a city boy to the core. With red hair and fair skin, he did not look like an archetypal beach boy out of Hollywood. He did not talk in surfing lingo, but he knew everything about the 3½-mile coastline that composes Ocean Beach, spanning from the Sunset to the Richmond, and he knew every surfer in the city.

Part of what gave Wise street cred was that he came from the tough streets of Visitacion Valley. From his family’s home at the corner of Sawyer and Sunrise streets, you could see the Cow Palace. Kids in “the valley,” as it was called, did not normally surf. They worked on cars and drove hot rods. To get to his father’s tools in order to make a custom surfboard in the garage, Wise had to step around his brother Ray’s Indian motorcycle and all the accompanying grease.

“That was the start of Wise Surfboards, right in the garage,” Ray Wise said. He did not appreciate the art of board shaping and the attendant “dust going all over my engine parts,” he said. “But we got along.”

Robert Edward Wise was born March 27, 1948, in San Francisco. His dad, Fred Wise, was a carpenter and shipwright. His mom, Olga Gray, had emigrated from Australia. There was no thread of surfing history in the family, but there was a cabin on the south shore of Lake Tahoe where they water-skied behind a 14-foot wooden boat built by their dad.

Wise and his brother loved the water enough to join the McLaren Park Swim Team, which practiced in a public pool two blocks from their home. Bobby, as he was known then, was a freestyle and butterfly specialist with a strong upper body. He attended Visitacion Valley Elementary School and Luther Burbank Middle School. The next step would have been Woodrow Wilson High, a tough place for a water-skiing swimmer, but Bobby tested into Lowell, the city’s premier academic high school, where he joined the swim team.

“A lot of us back then would go straight from swim practice to surf at Sloat,” said Rich Everett, who swam at Lincoln High School, which also trained at Fleishhacker Pool, a giant outdoor complex that closed in 1971.

Wise Surfboards offered hundreds of surfboards, gear and skateboards.

Wise Surfboards offered hundreds of surfboards, gear and skateboards.

Brant Ward, Staff / The Chronicle

Wise graduated from Lowell in 1966 and attended City College of San Francisco, intending to study political science and maybe advance to law school. In the summer of 1967, when he was still shaping boards in his garage, he made a 9-foot longboard for Rocky White, a neighborhood kid. When the board was finished, Wise accompanied White to the learner break at Linda Mar in Pacifica to teach him how to use it. That began a friendship that lasted 60 years.

“Bob introduced me to surfing when I was 14,” said White, who has bought at least 30 Wise Surfboards over the years. “There weren’t too many surfers from the Valley. Maybe four or five of us. He would find out the type of surfer you were and make a board that fit it.”

In 1968, Wise finally moved his operation out of the garage and into a tiny storefront on Wawona Street and the Great Highway. As accessories, his mother sewed ankle leashes that attached the board to a surfer’s leg. Over time, his shop moved from the Outer Sunset to the Outer Richmond, back to the Sunset and finally to the Richmond again, where he took three floors in the apartment complex that replaced Playland-at-the-Beach.

“He got big,” his brother said. “It had an elevator in it and everything. He got big.”

According to Everett, Wise Surfboards was open seven days a week, and Wise would be there seven days a week, unless there was a 49ers game to attend. Other owners might have left their shops to be minded by employees when the surf was up, but Wise was not that kind of owner.

“When the waves were good he did not go out and surf until after work,” Everett said. “He was focused on serving his customers, many of whom became his friends.” They were known as Wise Guys, and Renneker was one of them. The hardcore among the Wise Guys formed a more exclusive club called the Double Overhead Association for surfers who caught a wave 12 feet or higher. The D.O.A. gathered Friday afternoons when the surf was flat at the pool table in the shop basement.

“Bob’s shop was always really just about hanging out,” Renneker said.

In the early 1980s, Wise met Patricia Fonk at a bar on Haight Street. He had the shop and she ran the Sunset Veterinary Hospital, and they were soon going out. She was from Kenosha, Wis., and knew what surfing was, but that was the extent of it.

“That’s probably why we got along,” she said. “I never wanted to get in the cold water and go surfing. But that was who he was, and I would never tell him not to.”

They ended up buying a pair of flats on the Great Highway. They occupied the upstairs flat so Wise could see the surf at Ocean Beach through the picture window. Of equal importance was that surfers could spot his house, which was painted “Pepto-Bismol pink,” as he once said, and used it as a beacon.

“The surfers out there in the fog were able to know where they needed to come back to shore by that pink house,” he told The Chronicle’s Julian Guthrie in a 2013 interview. “When I changed the color to gray, all the surfers complained that they couldn’t see it.”

As other surf shops invaded, Wise Surfboards held its own. But the rise of the internet, with manufacturers selling direct to customers, drowned his business.

“People would come in, try on a suit, get all the information and buy it online,” Patricia said.

After the shop finally died, in 2019, a farewell party was held at the Cliff House. The city’s Board of Supervisors declared Jan. 9, 2020, as Wise Surfboards Day in his honor.

But Wise was unable to surf his way through retirement. Nine months before the closing party, he was assaulted by a pedestrian on Geneva Avenue who had stepped in front of his car. When Wise got out, he was punched and hit the pavement, suffering traumatic brain injury, a long hospitalization and several surgeries. Then, in November 2021, Wise fell backward on the stairs at Levi’s Stadium and hit his head again. He was mostly housebound after that, but he still checked the surf from his chair in front of the picture window in his living room.

“He would comment on what was going on with the waves and the ocean,” Patricia said. “Surfing was his life even when he could no longer do it.”

There is still one more wave to catch. Wise’s ashes will be scattered in the surf at Sloat.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by his mother, Olga Wise of Placerville, and brother, Raymond Wise of Pollock Pines (El Dorado County).

Sam Whiting is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: Twitter: @SamWhitingSF