5.21.2022 – Belmar, New Jersey…..a tight-knit, local seaside community, hardcore surf culture and history, extreme surf conditions, locals tight-lipped about the best breaks when its goin off, and home to some of the best pork roll, egg, and cheese sandwiches on earth.
As a thick early morning veil of fog is melted off by the scorching sun, pale tourists walk towards the beach to stake their space in the sand. Groups of surfers, locals, media, and out-of-towners gather near the 17th Street beach entrance. Traffic is becoming exhaustive and the town is filling up faster than the hot sun can make you squint. Yet through all this summer-like chaos, heat, confusion, fun and laughter, there’s this gate that has a sign on it, in capital letters…NOT LOCALS ONLY. A person’s face peers out with a broad, friendly smile…it’s Cecil, Cecil Lear, welcoming everyone in to his home town, his local turf, his beach, his home, his Rock…..as only Cecil would. Unbeknownst to many, other than Cecil’s wife Mary Lou Lear, almost to this day, 69 years ago, along this very boardwalk, in this same spot, Cecil met Mary Lou for the very first time. Now Mary Lou Lear, with her family, friends, and all near and dear to her and Cecil, come together to pay tribute to Cecil’s life and his contributions to the town of Belmar and to the entire surfing community.
Feeling emotional, with many words not needed, as his actions do speak for themselves, Don Tarrant stands quietly in front of his shop, surveying the local crowd as it grows, softly speaking to friends and taking it all in. Don, owner of Eastern Lines Surf Shop, is the coordinator of this event. Eastern Lines Surf Shop became Cecil’s local shop where he would hang out and talk surf stories; it’s where much of Cecil’s memorabilia currently hangs.
Then, without any hesitation, Don starts off heading to the beach, leading a flock of surfers – smiling young groms, ripped 20-30 yr olds, mid-aged males and females, and old bald headed surf gurus. It is Jersey hot, the ocean is Jersey cold….onto the boardwalk then the beach, but first to listen to words from wise men and women who knew and loved Cecil. Harry Harsin, Chief of Belmar Lifeguards, speaks of Cecil and his contribution to the patrol. Cecil was a Belmar lifeguard for over 20 years. Dr. Bill Rosenblatt, a near and dear friend to Cecil, speaks of all the lives that Cecil touched, and how it affected them. Frank Keuma, of Hawaii, stands tall in front of the crowd and tells stories of early days with Cecil, and how at a young age, being homeless, Cecil took him in after befriending him on the beach. He then offers a prayer for Cecil. Mary Lou Lear speaks with soft loving words in front of the crowd….. holding back tears, while expressing deep thanks to all.
Cecil and Mary Lou’s three daughters, Nancy, Jeannie, and Sue, are in attendance. Mary Lou Lear, “This is all just so wonderful. Cecil is truly smiling down on us today.” To top all the speeches and as a surprise to all in attendance, the Mayor of Belmar, speaking of his personal relationship with Cecil, speaking of all of Cecil’s contributions to the Belmar community, and how without Cecil’s prodding, he may never have even become a Belmar resident, declared and proclaimed thru his office, that May 21st will forever be known as Cecil Lear Day in Belmar, New Jersey.
Speeches, tears, smiles and laughter all die down, but the sun gets hotter and hotter…..surfers pull on their baked rubber fullsuits in the midday sun, then scramble like ants to sugar as they jump on their boards into the chilled Jersey surf….paddling 100 yards into the Atlantic to pay final respects to an icon, an innovator, a historian, a friend, a father and a loving husband who was graciously shared by his wife to the entire surfing world.
As ESA South Jersey Director Lisa Roselli said, “Cecil’s family had to share him with all of us. That’s not easy. Loved the dude,….Cecil and Mary Lou. I couldn’t speak out there, I would have just cried.” Gary Germain, former competitive ESA surfer and current president of The East Coast Surfing Hall of Fame, “Cecil enabled surfing to be better in every way, shape and form, not only on the East Coast, but all over the world.” Brian Heritage, president of The New Jersey Surfing Hall of Fame, remarks on the words spoken during the paddleout, “Words were spoken of how Cecil was always giving and guiding to all of us, especially the younger up and coming crew. That Cecil so wanted to get rid of the stigma surrounding surfers and have them treated as world class athletes as they are.”
Speaking to many surfers in attendance, from Jersey and afar, the theme is the same, Cecil took the time and the effort to care, make them feel comfortable, to help them understand what being a surfer means, and how to respectfully represent, not just in the present, but more importantly for and in the future….in surfing and in life.
As Don Tarrant slowly walks back to his beachfront shop, his brow beading with sweat, he pauses and reflects on the day, sighs a bit of relief, and quietly yet emphatically says, “There will never be another Cecil.”
Words and photos by Michael Baytoff