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BOB MEISTRELL: Body Glove co-founder changed world of surfing
Photo Galleries: Bob Meistrell, Body Glove co-founder, dies

Up until the day he died, Body Glove co-founder Bob Meistrell had the chance to do what he loved: power his 72-foot yacht, the Disappearance, in the waters off Southern California.

Meistrell, a surfing and diving legend who started making insulated wet suits decades ago with his identical twin brother, Bill, suffered a heart attack Sunday morning while leading a paddleboard race off Catalina Island, said his son, Robbie. The Torrance man was 84.

"He was one of a kind," Robbie Meistrell said. "And he died doing exactly what he wanted to do. ... He drove his damn boat every day. He touched a lot of people. Best human being I've ever known."

The Disappearance was the lead boat in the 22-mile Rock 2 Rock race Sunday from Isthmus Cove on Catalina to Cabrillo Beach in San Pedro. As he's done in previous years, Meistrell led the paddleboarders out of the harbor about 6:30 a.m., his son said.

But around 7, Robbie Meistrell received a call that his father's boat had a double-engine failure near Ship Rock. He was nearby and preparing to help tow in the vessel, which was also carrying his mother, Patty, and a second cousin, when he heard soon after that his father had suffered a heart attack in the boat's engine room, he said.

Family members, some of whom were following the paddleboarders on nearby boats, performed cardiopulmonary resuscitation along with county lifeguards who came to Meistrell's aid, said the son, who had also boarded the yacht to help. He estimated their efforts lasted an hour and 40 minutes.

"It's tough. This is a big loss," said Robbie Meistrell, who spent Father's Day weekend with his dad and others on the island. "The last couple days over at Catalina with him were awesome. We got to share some really good times with him this weekend."

Meistrell is a South Bay legend -- a veteran waterman, successful businessman and local philanthropist who in his later years powered his boat frequently for charity events and to scatter the ashes of friends' loved ones at sea, his son said.

Bill Meistrell, left, and Bob Meistrell, right, with lobsters caught off the coast.
Bill Meistrell, left, and Bob Meistrell, right, with lobsters caught off the coast. (Body Glove Photo)

He'd been active into his 80s -- "I don't know anyone who could keep up with him. He was always on the move," Robbie Meistrell said -- and even marked his 80th birthday with a dive off the Palos Verdes Peninsula, surrounded by family and friends. (He'd done a couple more since then, his son added.)

The Daily Breeze photographed the 80th milestone in August 2008 as Meistrell, suited up in vintage gear dating to the 1950s, paid tribute to his twin brother and longtime business partner, Bill, who died two years earlier at 77 after suffering from Parkinson's disease. That day, he dove about 100 feet toward the wreckage of the USS Palawan before doing a second dive off a reef.

"He had a wonderful life, and would have been 85 next month," Body Glove International President Russ Lesser wrote in an email Sunday announcing Meistrell's death. "His motto was 'Do what you love, love what you do.' "

Meistrell was born July 31, 1928, in Boonville, Mo., and grew up diving with his twin in a pool using a 5-gallon vegetable can for a diving helmet and a tire pump and hose for air.

"We were about as close as we could be," Bob Meistrell once told the Breeze. "We did everything together."

Bill Meistrell, left, and Bob Meistrell, center, work with a customer at the Dive and Surf store.
Bill Meistrell, left, and Bob Meistrell, center, work with a customer at the Dive and Surf store. (Body Glove Photo)

The twins, with their mother, two brothers and three sisters, eventually left the Midwest for Manhattan Beach, where the brothers' love for the water evolved. After graduating in 1947 from El Segundo High School, they worked as some of the first Los Angeles County ocean lifeguards.

They spent time apart in 1950, when both Meistrells were drafted into the U.S. Army. Bob was stationed at Fort Ord, while his older brother was sent to fight in Korea, where he was awarded a Bronze Star.

The Body Glove empire started taking shape in the 1950s; in 1953, the Meistrells bought into the Dive N' Surf store, then situated near the Redondo Beach breakwater, that was owned by surfboard maker Hap Jacobs and surfer and diver Bev Morgan.

When Jacobs left to start his own venture making surfboards, the twins' mother loaned them $1,800 to get into the business with Morgan. He was a friend they'd met while lifeguarding and surfing in the South Bay.

"We were all equal partners (in Dive N' Surf). But people would always say, 'Do they gang up on you?' " Morgan recalled in a 2006 Daily Breeze article. "And I said no, I could always get one of them to side with me. ... They were wonderful people. The whole family, they were just really nice people."

At the time the brothers bought into the business, they'd also been busy trying to find a way to stay warm in Southern California's cold ocean waters, according to the Body Glove company history. "They tried everything from wartime electrically heated flyers' suits to wool sweaters that lasted only as long as they were dry," it states.

Finally, in 1953, the brothers discovered an insulating material used in the back of refrigerators. It was with this "neoprene" that they fashioned the first practical wet suits -- an innovation that helped the twins to buy Morgan's share of Dive N' Surf in 1957. He went on to manufacture commercial diving helmets in Santa Barbara.

The brothers' shop, which sits today on North Broadway in Redondo Beach, became the home of "The Body Glove." As the story goes, the term was coined in 1966 when a marketing consultant asked the pair to describe how their wet suits fit. "Like a glove," they said.

The company's offices today are on nearby Herondo Street and are scheduled to move to an expanded building on Broadway within the next few months.

The company will celebrate its 60th anniversary this year, and in the fall plans to release a book called "Fits Like a Glove" detailing the twins' adventures.

"To our knowledge, Body Glove is either the only original 'surf' company left that is still privately owned and operated by the family that started it, or one of very few," Lesser's email said. "It is a shame that Bob will not be able to be with us during the 60th anniversary celebration."

Redondo Beach Mayor Steve Aspel said he "can't think of anyone, or any family, that has done more for the South Bay, especially Redondo Beach, than Bob Meistrell."

People have paid thousands of dollars to local charities for a three-hour ride on the Disappearance, the mayor said.

"He's one of the most famous watermen in the world and a true innovator," and "above all ... a great family guy," Aspel said.

In addition to his son Robbie, Meistrell is survived by his wife of 62 years, Patty; two other sons, Ronnie and Randy; two sisters, Judy Story of Reedsport, Ore., and Mary Ann Kopp of Denver, Colo.; nine grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

Funeral arrangements are pending. The family asks that any donations be made to the Switzer Center, Reef Check and Ocean Futures Society.