By David Rosenfeld
Rich Wilken wears a lot of hats, literally. He wears a Wilken Surfboards hat to mark his days as a surfboard shaper in the late 1960s. He wears a Boy Scout hat as assistant scout master for the past 30-plus years. And on the Fourth of July he typically wears a straw hat as he did recently announcing at the 66th annual parade that he’s played an integral part organizing for the past three decades.
He wears a few other hats more figurative than literal including member of the Optimist Club and the Palisades Lutheran Church. But for those familiar with the early days of short board surfing in the 1960s, Wilken is legendary.
It was in 1966 that he founded Wilken Surfboards during what’s referred to as the short board revolution. The sport was evolving from long boards that made long cutbacks and riders could balance on the nose, to shorter boards that could turn fast and carve off the lip of the wave. At the time, Wilken was right on top of the trend and in fact led several early design aspects that would come to characterize the most popular boards still today.
“If somebody wanted something special they would talk to me,” Wilken said. “We could come up with a design on a Friday afternoon and be riding it the next morning whereas Dewey Weber and Hobie (Alter) at that time had all this money invested in advertising and a certain model so they couldn’t change it that easily. We were really ahead of our time for a couple years.”
But branding wasn’t in his vernacular and the whole point was to earn enough money to become an architect. So by 1972 the surfboard business had virtually fizzled, though he still owns the brand and makes commemorative boards from time to time and Wilken pursued his architecture career. Around the Palisades, Wilken is known as the guy who can get stuff done. One year he saved the Fourth of July fireworks show that was endanger of losing its permit. And another year he helped stop a hit-and-run suspect by listening to police scanner he was given as an honorary Sheriff once.
When it comes to surfing history, few places were more legendary than the beaches at Malibu. And in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Wilken Surfboards sponsored lots of its top riders including Stanley Washington, one of the first black professional surfers and a mainstay on the beach there.
Washington was a well-known figure at the time who told us from his home in Birmingham, Alabama that Wilken was really gave him a chance. In addition to sponsoring Washington, which meant cash, free boards and trips to Hawaii, he put Washington in charge of a shop they started on the East Coast for a short while.
“He opened all kinds of doors for me,” Washington said. “He pushed my surfing to the top and gave me an opportunity to do better. He looked out for me.”
Today Washington is semi-retired selling vintage polo shirts out of a “fashion van” he drives around town. Not one to talk about his surfing days much with strangers, Washington often surprises people who look up his history on the Internet. He said Wilken was a true innovator at the time when board shapers were still trying out different styles.
“He would experiment with different shapes until something worked well,” Washington said. “Maybe it was a round tail and a flat bottom. Each one of these things caused the board to react differently. I liked the flat bottom boards because it made it go much faster across the face of the wave.”
Another early rider for Wilken, Glen Kennedy, went on to create Kennedy Surfboards that’s still thriving in Woodland Hills. Kennedy recalled an early lesson he received from Wilken one night in the shaping room after an evening hanging out with Wilken and fellow shaper Robbie Dick.
“I had torn up a few long boards and made shorter boards out of them so one night I grabbed the planer and was carving away when Wilken popped the door open and said ‘what’s with all this short stroke stuff?’” Kennedy said. “I was taking 3-or-4-foot passes instead of long smooth strokes the full length of the board. Even to this day it’s real fundamental and it’s something I’ll tell people if I’m teaching them.”
These days Kennedy produces 10 to 14 boards per week from his shop just over the hills from the Malibu surf break where it all started. Kennedy was a 17-year-old kid when Wilken took him on as a team rider, travelling to Hawaii and affording him the $2,000 he used to start his first board shop.
“At that period of time boards were changing so quick, everybody was learning from everybody else,” Kennedy said. “We were just starting to do the first real short board designs at the Wilken factory so he was really ahead of people in this area.”
While Kennedy stayed with surfing, it was architecture for Wilken that became his life work. We sat down with him at the Palisades Lutheran Church in the building he designed as a 26-year-old architect before he even had his license. It was his mother’s devotion to the church community as a boy growing up in the Palisades and at age 15 the passing of his father, who was a local pastry chef, which played a large role in Wilken’s own volunteer drive and community involvement. It was at the Lutheran Church too that he met his wife.
“I’m probably more involved in things that are healthy to do business-wise,” Wilken joked. “If I spent as much time on my business as I do volunteering I’d be retired in Hawaii right now.”
Arnie Wishnick, director of the Palisades Chamber of Commerce, called Wilken the ultimate volunteer.
“On the Fourth of July, he can be in two places at once,” Wishnick said. “He starts early with the 5k and 10k race. Then he’s running around with his truck getting ready for the parade and working the announcers booth. And then he runs over and organizes the fireworks show. I don’t know how he does it.”
Scott Wagenseller, owner of Gates Security and Palisades-Patrol, first met Wilken as an assistant master on a Boy Scout retreat. He said he’s a real morale booster and has great insight. Along with the Boy Scouts, the two have served on the design review board and other committees together.
“When you get involved in any of these community organizations, certainly the mission of the organization is one draw, but the second part, it’s generally because you enjoy socializing and being with the people in it,” Wagenseller said. “Rich has been a large part of that in this community for a long time.”
Wilken said he just tries to live his life like the Boy Scout motto, leave no trace.
“In the Boy Scouts we leave the campsite cleaner than you found it,” Wilken said. “I like to try to leave everything I do a little bit better than when I got there.”