by Scott Kerwin
“The waves were bigger back then. I don’t know what it was, but they were just bigger,” Ted Kerwin told Easy Reader in 2003, the year he and brothers John, Joe, Fred and Jim, and sister Mary were inducted into the Hermosa Beach Surfers Hall of Fame. Through the prism of hindsight, it isn’t only the waves that seemed bigger during the early days of surfing, but the surfers as well.
Kerwin, a lifelong Hermosa Beach resident and pioneer member of the Surfers Walk of Fame passed away on November 26, 2012 surrounded by his wife and family at his home on Monterey Boulevard. He was 89 and one of the last remaining members of the pre World War II Hermosa Beach Surfing Club. A memorial service is planned at 9:30 a.m. on Saturday, January 12 at St. James Church, 415 Vincent Street, Redondo Beach.
Ted was the second youngest of nine “Kerwin Kids,” all born at the family residence and bakery business on lower Pier Avenue between 1911 and 1926. Ted’s father John Kerwin left Ireland at the age of 19, arriving in New York at Ellis Island in 1902. Prior to traveling west to Hermosa Beach in 1909, he worked for several years as a baker in Massachusetts, saving his money and perfecting his baking skills.
Shortly after arriving in Hermosa, he met Mary Hiss, whose father, John Hiss, had built the first school in the new town a few years earlier (Ocean View School). Mary’s Uncle Ben Hiss was a local real estate developer and was on the Board of Trustees responsible for incorporation of the City of Hermosa Beach in 1907.
John Kerwin had apparently found what he was looking for when he met Mary and they were married on June 1, 1910 at Dominguez Chapel in Redondo Beach, the first Catholic Church to be established in the beach cities. Likely, with the help and encouragement of Mary’s Uncle Ben, they bought a two-story wood-frame building at 31 Santa Fe Avenue (now Pier Avenue) and in 1910 opened the first bakery in town – Kerwin’s Bakery and Lunch Room. The original wooden building was replaced in 1916 with a modern brick structure that included a second story residence with a rooftop yard in the back for the kids, which provided a clear view of the waves for a family of future surfers. The former Kerwin bakery building still exists today and is currently occupied by the Palmilla Restaurant and Bonaparte Café, with offices upstairs in the former Kerwin residence.
With the ocean and beach as their playground, the Kerwin Kids were early practitioners of the art of surfing in California. Big brother John Kerwin organized the Hermosa Beach Surfing Club in the mid-1930s with financial assistance from the Chamber of Commerce, including also rooms for a clubhouse and surfboard storage in the large pavilion building that formerly existed at the foot of the old Hermosa Beach Pier. Five of the brothers (John, Joe, Fred, Jim and Ted) and two sisters (Mary and Emma) were core members of the club, which competed up and down the coast in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Ted’s eldest sister, Ellen and youngest brother, Tommy, were also avid beachgoers, but never really caught the surfing bug.
Growing up at the beach instilled a lifelong love of the ocean and all things connected with it. At one time or another, all of the Kerwin brothers worked as LA County lifeguards. Fred served for many years at the lifeguard headquarters on the old Hermosa Beach pier in the late 1940s-early 1950s. Ted was particularly proud of his role on an LA County dory team with his brother Fred. They won the annual Taplin relay race at the lifeguard championships in Hermosa Beach in 1939. His prior years of fishing and riding the waves as a kid off the coast of Hermosa in a little skiff named “Salty” with his childhood friend Lew Leis had prepared him well for future rowing competitions.
The Kerwin brothers all served during World War II, with 19 year old Ted heading to the South Pacific to pilot a landing barge in the Solomon Islands, where his wave/beach knowledge proved to be a useful asset. Although the Hermosa Beach Surfing Club re-formed after the war, and most of the old gang still held court on the beach north of the pier, the responsibilities of jobs, new businesses, marriage and growing families didn’t allow a return to the glory days prior to the war.
Ted met his future wife Dotty on the beach in Hermosa. She was not only beautiful, but also handled herself well in the water, having grown up on the beach in El Porto. They became well known for their tandem body surfing skills, sometimes shooting between the pilings of the old Hermosa pier.
Ted and Dotty were married in 1948 and the first of five children arrived about a year later. Ted tried his hand at a few different things, but with a growing family, he knew he had to get serious about a career. The father of his childhood friend, Lew Lewis, had several 5 & 10 Cent general merchandise stores in the local area, including Woodbury in Hermosa Beach and Seabury in Manhattan Beach. Ted started his retail career by accepting a tour of duty managing the Woodbury 5 & 10 Cent store in south Los Angeles at the corner of Main and 110th streets. At about that same time the concept of shopping malls developed in line with the rapid residential growth of Southern California in the 1950s. After several years of learning the dime store business, Ted and Lew were ready to ride the new retail wave. The Toy World chain of toy stores was born in the late 1950s and one of Ted’s jobs was to assess the business prospects for a new Toy World store in every major shopping center that was being constructed in Southern California. They also started a toy wholesaling business to supply the stores with merchandise, which cut out the middle man with the toy manufacturers by actually becoming their own middle man. At their peak in the late 1960s – early 1970s, Ted was the general manager of about 30 Toy World stores, including nearby stores in the old Triangle Shopping Center in Redondo and in the Del Amo Mall in Torrance. Although Ted worked very hard in the business, he instilled a sense of fun in everything he did, which meant that enjoying your work and having a good time was a part of the job description when you worked for him.
Ted and Dotty started their married life in a small house on 10th St. in Hermosa Beach, but with the birth of their fourth child in 1956, it became apparent that an 800 square-foot house just wasn’t big enough. With the growing business there was enough money to buy the large, empty sand hill lot catty-corner from their home that the kids used as a play area. Ted and Dotty put together plans for their two-story, custom dream home, with special attention to the panoramic view of the Pacific and Palos Verdes Peninsula that was visible from the planned living room and kitchen areas. Construction of the house was completed in 1959 by good friend, Olie Scrivens, who was an original member of the Hermosa Beach Surfing Club and is also an honorary pioneer member of the Surfers Walk of Fame. In the 1960s and 1970s, the large “playroom” and two-car garage on the ground floor of the house served as a meeting place and hang-out for literally hundreds of friends and classmates of the Kerwin children that were welcomed by Ted and Dotty as part of the extended family. At one time there were as many as 35 longboards stored in the garage and backyard, and during the summer months it was common to see a nearly continuous flow of surfers and surfettes up and down the hill from the beach to the Kerwin home.
In addition to riding the waves, fishing and diving had always been a big part of life for Ted. Although it is often referred to these days as being a “waterman,” for Ted it was basically just what you did when you lived at the beach. Although Dotty may not have agreed at the time, once you have the family home organized, the next important element for a good life at the beach is to have your own boat. Ted contracted with a boat builder in Venice who had built several of the Baywatch boats for LA County to build a 30-foot fishing boat that incorporated all the best design elements from his friends’ boats. For 40 years after it was constructed in the early 1960s, the Teedor, with Captain Ted at the helm, provided another unique source of enjoyment, adventure and generous hospitality for Ted’s family and friends. A couple of generations of kids caught their first fish, got their first view of the ocean bottom while snorkeling, and accumulated an abundance of memories of good fun on the Teedor that will stick with them the rest of their lives.
As a young kid at the family bakery on Pier Avenue, Ted would listen to the UCLA football games on the radio, and Bruin football became a lifelong passion for him. With an Irish immigrant father and a mother who was born and raised a short distance from South Bend, Indiana, the Notre Dame football team was a close second in his hierarchy of college sports. His third favorite team was anybody who was playing USC, although he pretty much refused to watch USC play anything unless they were playing UCLA or Notre Dame. In spite of an uncooperative, weakening body that couldn’t match his strong spirit, a little more than a week before he passed on, Ted mustered the energy to cheer his Bruin football team to victory over USC from his favorite chair in the living room at the family home. The following week, the broadcast of Notre Dame’s victory over USC, earning them a spot in the National Championship, played on his bedside TV, and details were regularly whispered into his ear, so it is presumed that he was able to share in that victory also.
Although his love of college football may seem trite, it illustrates the passion, interest and spirit of fun that he invested in everything that he did in his life. He was aware that he had an exceptionally good run and he enjoyed every moment with his family, friends and just about everyone he has ever met. He had a special talent for making everyone feel special by expressing a genuine interest and curiosity in them. To quote one of his favorite Tedisms, “People make it happen”. There are an abundance of people who will miss him dearly, but we can all take solace in the fact that there is at least a little bit of him that will persist in everyone he has touched in his life.
Kerwin is survived by his loving wife Dotty, five children: Scott (Georgina), Brad, (Linda), Bonnie (Pat McElroy), Duff and Casey (Tracey), nine grandchildren: Jason, Adrian, Darcy, Rory, Brendan, Emma, Teddy, Duffy and Maddie and a large contingent of other family and extended family. Brother Jim Kerwin, 91, of Ojai, California is the last surviving of the original nine Kerwin Kids. A memorial service will be held at 9:30 a.m. on Saturday, January 12 at St. James Church, 415 Vincent Street, Redondo Beach. In the fine Irish tradition, a Celebration of Life will be held immediately following the memorial service. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that a donation be made to Providence Trinity Care Hospice, 2601 Airport Drive, Suite 230, Torrance, CA 90505.
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