Making skate boarding history

Close your eyes and imagine a skateboarder. If the first image that came to mind was a 15 year-old with a scowl on his face sliding down the hand rails of a public stairway, it may be time to get a fresh perspective on the sport.
That’s just what you’ll receive from Jack Smith, founder of the Morro Bay Skateboard Museum and publisher of The Skateboarder’s Journal magazine. At 56 years old, the soft-spoken and down-to-earth Smith does not fit the stereotype of the skateboarder; in fact, his work is helping to change the stereotype.

Both his museum and his magazine pay tribute to the history and culture of skateboarding and the diversity of riders and styles that the sport comprises. Unlike typical skateboarding publications, geared toward that aforementioned 15 year-old, Smith’s Skateboarder’s Journal appeals to a wider audience and covers virtually every aspect of the sport, from longboarding to slalom and downhill racing to long distance pushing.

These are all modern competitive sports, in case you didn’t know. In fact, Smith left on the Fourth of July to lead his fourth cross-country long-distance skateboarding trip. The feat will take his team, consisting of five skaters, a support vehicle driver, and a videographer, 23 to 25 days to complete, riding an average of 100 miles a day in a leap-frog relay style.

Smith explains that his first ride across America was in 1976, when he and two friends got a sponsor and did it as a summer job. Since then he has had loftier ambitions: in 1984, his team rode to raise awareness for multiple sclerosis. In 2003, the ride was dedicated to Smith’s eldest son who passed away that year from a rare genetic disease called Lowe’s Syndrome, which they worked to raise funds and awareness for as they pushed across the Cascades, Rockies and Appalachians.

The current trip is in honor of Smith’s father, who passed away in October of last year from complications with Alzheimer ’s disease. Smith’s 21-year-old son Dylan will join him in the tribute ride, along with two female long distance pushing champions and Smith’s wife (also an avid skateboarder, who will serve as support vehicle driver) as they raise funds for the Alzheimer’s Association.

The name of their ride, “A Push to Remember,” is apt for more than one reason, considering that Smith’s other recent efforts have served to preserve, educate and honor the history and collective memory of skateboarding—a history which he also helped make.

Although he rode his first skateboard in 1964 (a homemade board his father had built when he was seven years old) his love affair with the sport didn’t begin until ten years later, when he graduated from Morro Bay High School and when the age of the skateboard truly dawned. Smith explains that skateboarding first took hold as a popular sport in the late fifties and early sixties; however, “It was very short-lived.” It died overnight in 1965, due in part to the Surgeon General’s warning about how dangerous it was. Not until 1972 did technology catch up, introducing urethane wheels to replace the old clay wheels. “That changed everything.”

Smith rediscovered skateboarding and dove headlong into competing. “I was in the first big contest of the 1970s at the Del Mar Fair Grounds,” he says, referencing the contest reenacted in the skateboarding movie Lords of Dogtown. In the dramatization, Smith played the role of announcer, but in real life, he had competed head-to-head with some of the sport’s legends, participating mainly in downhill racing and slalom.

But, as Smith got older and racing gave way to the more contemporary vertical competitions and skate parks, Smith did not outgrow the skateboard. He evolved with it. “Pretty much my whole adult life, I’ve been involved in the skating industry,” he says.

He’s not the only one that hasn’t let go of the sport, as proven by the demographic visiting his Morro Bay Skateboard Museum. The only one of its kind in the nation, and perhaps one of two in the world, the free-admission museum holds over 200 boards of every imaginable style and from every era and draws visitors of all ages.

“We get a lot of old guys,” Smith says, “and when I say ‘old’ I mean 40 and above, which is old for a skateboarder. For so many of these guys—and women—it’s like a touchstone to their youth. They see their first skateboard and all of a sudden they’re 15 years old again. I’ve had guys spend hours, and come back numerous times. I’ve had guys that get teary-eyed looking at the boards and telling stories.” In this small museum on the embarcadero, he explains, the skateboard surfaces as an unlikely common thread between generations and across cultures.

This summer, the thread got longer. The Smithsonian Institute asked Smith to donate the board he rode in his first cross-country trip in 1976. Once he finishes this year’s ride, they’ve also requested the 2013 vintage for the display.
“I tell people the story [about my board being in the Smithsonian], and I start laughing half the time,” he says with a chuckle. “I could never have imagined that would happen. It’s so cool because, someday my son can take his kids to the Smithsonian and say, ‘Hey, look: There’s grandpa’s skateboard.’”

And thanks to Smith’s contribution, such a statement may not sound so improbable to our ears for much longer.

Jamie Relth - local writer and photographer