‘Mouse Would Go’: Legendary Ocean Beach surfer Jim Robb dies at 87
Jim “Mouse” Robb, a legendary San Diego surfer, especially in Ocean Beach, who started riding waves in the 1940s on 70-pound longboards made of redwood and became a father figure to dozens of local lifeguards and assorted water rats, died April 22, one day shy of his 88th birthday.
His impact inspired a bumper sticker, “Mouse Would Go,” a nod to his eagerness to surf even the biggest waves and to his willingness to help people as a mentor, an electrician and a do-whatever-it-takes volunteer. The slogan was a takeoff on “Eddie Would Go,” about late Hawaii lifeguard and big-wave surfer Eddie Aikau.
“We all tried to be like [Robb],” said Lee Edging, a building inspection supervisor and former president of the Sunset Cliffs Surfing Association, a club Robb helped start that emphasized community service almost as much as wave-chasing and became a template for similar organizations in Southern California.
Robb won trophies and renown as a tandem surfer, hoisting women overhead as he rode. He organized and judged major surfing competitions. He was an extra in a 1986 video for a Beach Boys song, “Rock ‘n’ Roll to the Rescue.”
But what set him apart, his admirers say, was his decades-long embrace of the ocean — the waves, the seafood, the bracing salt air — and of the “spirit of Aloha” that animates the lives of its most humble devotees.
“As one of the last plank guys who grew up in the solid-wood board era, he was somebody you really looked up to,” said Skip Frye, a top competitive surfer in the 1960s and an influential designer of boards, which now have foam cores and are much lighter and more maneuverable. “Just a really good guy, a really big heart — a very good representative of the human race, let alone surfing.”
Robb was born April 23, 1933, in Zanesville, Ohio, the youngest of three children. His father, Hugh, had been a coal miner in Scotland, and Zanesville was a mining town. His damaged lungs sent the family West in search of healthier air, to Arizona and then to Ocean Beach, to a bungalow three blocks from the beach on Narragansett Avenue.
They arrived in 1940 when Robb was 7. The waterfront became his playground, the lifeguards his teachers. They emphasized physical fitness, instilling habits — early-morning runs on the beach, long swims in the ocean — that he continued for much of his life.
One of the lifeguards also gave him his nickname. Robb was short and he walked with his chest out, he told The San Diego Union-Tribune in a 1996 interview, and that reminded the lifeguard of the cartoon character Mighty Mouse.
Robb went to Ocean Beach Elementary School, Dana Junior High and Point Loma High, graduating in 1951. When he wasn’t in school he was often in the water, bike riding with a longboard balanced on his shoulder to his favorite breaks off Sunset Cliffs.
After high school, during the Korean War, he served in the Air Force, then returned home to what seemed like the perfect job: lifeguard. Some of his rescues in the mid-1950s are still talked about.
In one, Lee Brown, who was about 14, was surfing at the foot of Osprey Street. The waves were large, 10 feet, and he fell off his board. Nobody used leashes back then, so the board got washed into a cove. Brown swam to retrieve it and found himself trapped in the surging water.
“I was having a devil of a time,” Brown said. “I don’t know whether I would have drowned, but my odds would not have been good.”
Robb and another rescuer scampered down the cliffs and pulled him — and the surfboard — to safety.
As often happened with people Robb met in and around the ocean, he became Brown’s friend and guide. Brown grew up to be a lifeguard, too. Then he “stayed with water” and got a doctorate and a career in hydrology.
“He and some of the other guys were father figures to us,” said Brown, now 80. “They took us in, and I think our core values are pretty well structured by our mentors and heroes. They were not surf bums, they were men whose ethics were in their hearts as well as their minds.”
Robb liked being a lifeguard, but it didn’t pay much, about $300 a month for seasonal work. He and his girlfriend, Carole Welshans, wanted to marry and raise a family. He went to night school and learned how to be an electrician. Then he got a job with Western Electric that he kept for 30 years.
He surfed and swam and dived whenever he could, earning a label of respect, “waterman.” He often was the first one in the ocean in the morning. Not even the turf wars that increasingly came to define surfing as it grew more popular would wipe the smile off his face for long, friends said.
“I surf instinctively,” he told the Union-Tribune in the 1996 interview. “You never know what that wave is going to be like until you’re on it.” He was still catching them, on a paddleboard, well into his 80s.
In the community, Robb volunteered for several causes and events. He wired the lights for the annual Ocean Beach Christmas tree and did free electrical work for friends. He pushed for a bronze statue honoring lifeguards. After he survived a bout with bladder cancer, he anchored a team of other survivors in a friendly surfing competition to raise money for medical research.
As the years passed, his status as surfing’s kindly elder statesman grew. The city of San Diego issued a proclamation for “Jim ‘Mouse’ Robb Day” in April 2013, timed to his 80th birthday.
Robb’s survivors include his wife of 63 years, Carole, of Point Loma; a son, Darren Robb (and wife Tiffany), of Carlsbad; a daughter, Kathleen Robb, of Lihue, Kauai; four grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
A memorial paddle-out is planned for this summer.
“Beer will flow, stories will be salty and local legends will turn out for one of their own,” said Chris Reising, a human-resources director and surfing friend. “There won’t be parking for miles.”
— Point Loma-OB Monthly staff contributed to this report.