Remembering Richard Lisiewski, the Island’s Very First Surfer
This week, Long Beach Island lost an integral member of the surf community – its very first. Richard Lisiewski, who founded and shaped Matador Surfboards, owned Brant Beach and Brighton Beach Surf Shops and was a member of both the East Coast and New Jersey Surfing Halls of Fame, passed away last Thursday at the age of 90. He was best known as the first to build a surfboard and surf north of the Mason-Dixon Line.
Lisiewski’s stories are larger than life. The son of Polish immigrants, he hustled in their tavern as a kid, and is remembered to have run moonshine during Prohibition and sold cigarettes. At age 12, he was said to have borrowed a car from an unknowing bar patron and driven to New York City. It’s likely he wasn’t questioned because he was already 6 feet tall and weighed over 200 pounds.
In the mid-30s, the family bought a summer place in Beach Haven. Prior to that, the only images close to surfing that he’d seen were outrigger canoes in photos. But Tom Blake’s article in the July 1937 issue of Popular Mechanics on how to build a hollow surfboard truly sparked his interest in riding waves. He built the board in Riverside and drove to Seaside Heights. As the story goes, it flew off the car’s roof on the way home and was destroyed.
“It got destroyed by a truck,” Lisiewski said in a 2009 article in Eastern Surf Magazine. “But in another week or so, we had completed another one.”
From his parents’ place in Beach Haven, he pioneered surfing Holgate, on the southern end of LBI, through the ’40s. When he was drafted during the Korean Conflict, he fortunately stayed stateside, which allowed him to surf on weekends. In 1951, he married his wife, Pauline, who enjoyed the coastal lifestyle.
Once he’d served his country, he and Pauline headed to California. It was the first time he’d seen groups of surfers after nearly a decade of waveriding. He was also very impressed with the bullfighters of Tijuana.
“They were exciting people,” he recalled. “It’s pretty adventurous to face a 1,200-pound bull. I brought back all these portraits of matadors.”
Although surfing was still a rare pursuit at the Jersey Shore, Lisiewski decided he could take a shot at building boards. Foam and fiberglass were now developed and were being used to make surfboards.
He traveled to California again and immediately got a job with Bob “The Greek” Boland, a top Huntington Beach shaper of the time. After a month, he felt he had gained enough knowledge and drove back to New Jersey, where he partnered with Frank Collier, a woodworker whom he’d introduced to surfing, and they started the Collier and Matador Surfboards labels simultaneously in 1961. Those bullfighters had made quite an impact on him.
Surfing and the lifestyle were popularized by the beach blanket bingo films of the time, and the sport’s popularity created an instant demand for boards. Lisiewski and Collier forged into uncharted territory and were able to sell not only surfboards, but also early skateboards, wakeboards and bellyboards.
When he and Collier parted, Lisiewski moved his operation to LBI, opening Brant Beach Surf Shop on 34th Street and Long Beach Boulevard in 1965.
While starting a family of their own, the Lisiewskis became known as having the shop that catered specifically to families, a reputation that stands to this day. They bought a new building and reopened as the current Brighton Beach Surf Shop in 1981.
When their son Michael Lisiewski took over the shop, Richard took his new role as a big, friendly storyteller onto the stoop, watching the action each summer from his beach chair.
In his years in business, Lisiewski had unknowingly amassed an entire museum of surf nostalgia, which is very important to the sport. The years of boards in the attic and garage are a visual history of the surfboard’s evolution.
“I’ve always been a pack rat. I didn’t know I was saving anything valuable; I just didn’t want to part with anything,” Lisiewski admitted.
In 2008, he was inducted into the East Coast Surfing Hall of Fame. At a ceremony in Orlando, Fla., he humbly told the crowd, “I don’t deserve this. I have a confession to make: I’m not a very good surfer, but I have a damn lot of fun.”
He was big on knowledge but not self-promotion, something that locals truly appreciated about him, and it’s a tradition his family has continued.
Pauline passed several years ago, but until that point, the two would still make regular drives up and down the East Coast, delivering Matador Surfboards.
Michael Lisiewski, who lives in Manahawkin with his wife Stacy, continues to run Brighton Beach Surf Shop and the Matador label and also owns Wave Hog Surf Shop. His sister, Caroline Unger, who lives in Ship Bottom with her husband Dan, is a physical therapist in Manahawkin and authored the historical documentary book Surfing LBI in 2001. Richard had four grandchildren – Ava, Lucas, Jackie and Daniel.
He used to say, “You’re never to old to have fun,” said Michael this week.
A social media post from the Matador Surfboards account on Saturday read, “One of his greatest joys was watching others try, learn and fall in love with surfing. Although he was not a great surfer himself, he loved the sport and found his own way to be involved in the surfing community. He shared his love of surfing with his family and loved seeing his children and grandchildren learn to surf.”
That second wooden board Lisiewski built is one of the most important artifacts in East Coast surfing history and is currently on display at the New Jersey Surf Museum at the Tuckerton Seaport in Tuckerton. Beach Haven surfer and woodworker Greg Melega was nearly finished with a replica and had been hoping to show it to Lisiewski before he passed last week.
“He is New Jersey surfing,” said Max Dimon, current manager of Wave Hog Surf Shop, “I wouldn’t be doing what I am today – building and fixing surfboards – if it wasn’t for him. He laid the groundwork for every generation from the ’30s to today.”