ENCINITAS — Jack “Woody” Ekstrom, 83, is the first to admit that he wasn’t much of a student growing up in La Jolla. In fact, he describes himself as being “slow.”
“I tell people that by the time I got out of elementary school the teachers were looking good,” he says today with a grin.
But there was one thing he excelled at: surfing.
“When I rode the waves I felt accomplished,” he said. “A wave looks huge if you don’t surf. It doesn’t look so big if you have timing.”
Ekstrom was born Oct. 13, 1927, in Kewanee, Ill., the oldest child of Nellie and Oswald Ekstrom, a Swedish immigrant. In 1930 his parents moved the family to San Diego. They settled in La Jolla on March 1, 1940, on property now occupied by the Su Casa Mexican restaurant near Windansea.
“I began hanging out at La Jolla Shores, pushing off and standing up on my mother’s ironing board in a soup,” Ekstrom remembers. He’d also borrow a paddleboard from his new pal, Bill Isenhower.
The following year he was on a streetcar in La Jolla when he met what would become another lifelong friend, John Blankenship.
“John talked me into going sunrise surfing in April,” he recalls. “I thought I was going to freeze.”
Ekstrom earned money as a paperboy and in late 1942 bought a 13-foot
paddleboard for 25 cents from Phil Barber, a local property owner.
“Lee Grady, the lifeguard, would drive from the Mission Beach headquarters and stop on Gravailla Street where Bill and I would hop on his truck and go to La Jolla Shores for the day,” he said.
In 1943 Ekstrom pulled a cart from La Jolla to Mission Beach where he bought a balsa redwood board for $7.50 that was shaped by Lloyd Baker. While his older friends surfed at Windansea, Ekstrom and the younger surfers went south to Big Rock. He spent that summer at San Onofre where he honed his skills gathering tips from the “senior” surfers.
As his older surfing buddies went off to fight in World War II, Ekstrom was left riding the big waves alone.
A favorite memory happened when they began arriving home, and a group gathered in the balcony at the Granada Theater in La Jolla to watch a movie and a Woody Woodpecker cartoon.
“Someone said I had a red nose (from sunburn) like Woody Woodpecker,” he remembers. The name stuck.
As life returned to normal, Ekstrom’s circle of lifelong friends would include John Blankenship, Bobby and Pete Charlton, Towny Cromwell, Andy Forshaw, Larry Gray, Buddy Hull, Bill Isenhower, Carl Knox, Dick Linville and Don Okey.
On Feb. 17, 1947, friends could only watch in horror when he was caught inside a 30- to 35-foot wave at La Jolla Cove.
“A lifeguard came out and I said, ‘Don’t come in!’” he remembers. “The face was like a football field and was unrideable because of the backwash. I tried to push my board through but I had to let it go.”
Ekstrom got into a ball and remained in what he described as a “Mixmaster” until he could feel the energy dissipating from the water. When he put his feet down on the reef, he walked in knee deep water to safety with only a scratch.
The event was so terrifying that word got back to his mother that he had been killed.
“Afterwards someone asked me what I was thinking,” he remembers. “I said that I thought to myself, ‘I guess I’m going to die a virgin.’”
In 1965 Ekstrom built a home on Neptune Avenue in Encinitas.
Looking back, he says the best part of surfing was the learning process.
“There’s something to be said about making improvements each day,” he added.
Ekstrom was the first of the local legends to be interviewed for an oral history project at the California Surf Museum. It’s hard to imagine a time when he was ever considered slow. He remembers each detail of his life with precision.
“When Woody starts to speak, we start to listen,” said Todd Quinn, store supervisor of the museum. “He teaches us, the younger generation, about a moment in time that was so good.”