Marge Calhoun a fearless pioneer for surfing world

Dec 3, 2017

Marge Calhoun was a legend in the surfing world. A resident of Morro Bay before her death in early September, Calhoun was one of the sport’s early pioneers, becoming the first female world champion to win the Makaha International in Hawaii.

For further reading on Calhoun, check out this profile on the California Surf Museum’s website.

Los Osos resident and surfer Terry Eselun was good friends with Calhoun. Eselun recently visited the KCBX studio to talk about her late friend, and what Calhoun meant to the world of surfing. Here is Eselun in conversation with KCBX news director Greta Mart:

KCBX: You came in today to talk about a friend of yours who recently passed away. Tell me her name and tell me all about her.

ESELUN: Marge Calhoun just left the planet on September 2 of this year. She was 93 years old. She was the first lady really of surfing. She was the first women's surfing champion world champion at Makaha in 1958.

KCBX: What’s Makaha?

ESELUN: Makaha Hawaii was the big world class surfing championship back in the day. She's also a co-founder of the USSA, which is the United States Surfing Association, back in the early 60s. She - along with a couple of the fellas… Hoppy Schwartz, Kit Horn… got together after the movie Gidget came out 1959. And what happened is, surfing exploded and it brought in everybody from inland and everybody was at the beach and they started not taking care of the beach. And it was getting so bad that the Marge Calhoun and Poppy were afraid that they were actually going to close the beaches to surfing, so they got together and they formed the first surfing association. And from there, put on contests and it just grew from there.

KCBX: Where did Calhoun live?

ESELUN: She grew up in Hollywood, and then later in Santa Monica where she lived with her husband, she was married in 1942. She was trained to be an Olympic diver. She was headed for the Olympics in 1940, but World War II came and we boycotted the Olympics, so she didn't get to go. Her dad was a Hollywood set designer. So she was a natural fit for Hollywood stunt work. She doubled for Esther Williams, and did a gig with Roy Roy Rogers where she sat at the bottom of the pool, she was the underwater cowgirl and would breathe through a tube and with mermaid fins on.. she did shows at Marineland of the Pacific down in Palos Verdes - if you remember that, it was one of the first aquariums on the coast, and did big Esther William-type shows, with Tahiti dancers and a lot of diving…she was a natural athlete and also she was just a super quality good person.

KCBX: How did you know her?

ESELUN: I knew her because I have surfed my whole life, and in the '60s I started surfing in competition and in the mid-60s, Marge was one of the judges. One of the only female judges, in fact, she likes to recall the story that Phil Edwards asked her, what are you doing judging contests? And she said, well, I don't have to make wine to know good wine when I taste it. Marge had a single focus, she knew who she wanted to be, she knew who she was. And so I knew her then as a surfing icon. And then later in life, I did an interview with her. She lived in Morro Bay for about 15 or 20 years. And so I did an interview and from there we got to be very good friends.

KCBX: I see. Did Marge surf in Morro Bay?

ESELUN: No, because physically, she could not, she had a lot of physical challenges later in life. But her mind was extremely vital and, you know, the vitality of her spirit even at 93 was incredible. She and her daughter Robin - she had two daughters Robin Calhoun and Candi Calhoun, both famous surfers in their day, in the 1960s. So Robin came to live with her about 14 years ago and has taken care of her, and every day Marge would get up and she could see the surf from her window and she could still surf in her mind - knew what was going on, knew if the swells are big, if the bay was filling up, what was happening, what direction they were coming from…so she really on a molecular level, got the ocean. It was part of her. And so she gave up actually surfing in her mid-to-late 60s when she physically couldn't do it any longer but she still loved the sea.

KCBX: Well, I'm not a surfer but I've paid a little bit of attention to the surfing world, but I hadn't heard of her.

ESELUN: Any woman that has surfed or any man has surfed over any period of time knows Marge Calhoun - she’s that famous…she had a regal bearing She was tall, adventurous, surfed when you know the boards were heavy, they were made out of balsa wood and no leashes, no wet suits. She surf big waves - the gnarlier, the rougher the waves, the more dramatic the wave, the better for Marge. So she was a very powerful woman, and but never looked for attention. She was a private person, so that may be why you haven't heard heard of her.

KCBX: Do you know how she got into surfing?

ESELUN: Yes, she just loved the ocean. When she was three, four, her parents would take her down to Santa Monica beach and she would play in the water. Her mom loved to swim. Her dad was very adventurous and fearless, and she just took to the ocean, in fact, she told me they had to give her swimming lessons, because otherwise she would have drowned because she was just so drawn to the water. Robin, her daughter, tells me Marge would walk up the stairs when she was seven or eight on her hands. She just was very naturally gifted as an athlete.

KCBX: And tell me about how when she first started kind of going pro.

ESELUN: Well, that was 1958, she was married with two young girls and that was you know Donna Reed time, when women just didn't step outside the house. She left the house with a friend of hers - Evie Fletcher - and they flew to Hawaii, all dressed up in - those days, you know - with heels and dresses landed in Hawaii. They knew George Downing, who was one of the famous surfers in Hawaii. They went to find him, and hey asked where is Makaha? It's on the west shore of Oahu. And he loaned him a car, and they went on the dirt road at that time out to Makaha, missed the beach, went all the way around the point, which is a gnarly place to go around, and never found Makaha. So George finally took them out there and said, stay out here, and he got him a paneled truck to rent to live in for a month. They stayed out there and they surfed the North Shore, which is where all the big waves are…Sunset Beach, Pipeline. And then of course the contests of Makaha. I think her heart really was at Makaha, there's an energy there, there's a quality of life on that western shore of Oahu that Marge really resonated with. And so I don't think she intended to stay quite that long, but she loved it so much she stayed.. her husband took over her. Her mother came over and helped with the girls. So it was a big deal at the time, in fact, she was on the news and in Oahu, they talked about the wahines living out of their van. So she was with much of a trailblazer for women's surfing.

KCBX: And so what did she do in her 30s and 40s?

ESELUN: She was a mother and a surfer. And she did the stunt work, she did a lot of that and she was married to Tom Calhoun for about 17 years and she was a judge was involved with surfing and organizing. She was involved in the surfing world for a very long time.

KCBX: What brought her to Morro Bay?

ESELUN: You know, I'm not sure. I think one of her daughters was here and she liked it, came down and loved the ocean and found a place up on the hill where she could still see it.

KCBX; And what brought you to this area?

ESELUN: I have been coming up here for about 30 years. My mom lives up here, and I'm still surfing and I have a business in Huntington Beach, but I just felt that I wanted to get away from some of the crowds and there's a freedom and it's rougher here, it's colder. But it's it's beautiful. So that's what draws me here.

KCBX: All right. What else can you tell me about Marge?

ESELUN: I think anything I want people to know about Marge is - when I asked her what she'd want to impart to young women, young girls is that if you feel you want to do something, do it. Don't let anything stand in your way. I mean Marge was never deterred by the men and in those days in surfing is very much a male dominated sport, still is today. And she she just didn't let anything stop her and always keep a good sense of humor, Marge was still could make you laugh and she'd get a kick out of anything. So that's what I would like people to know about Marge.