Born into a troubled home life, the Santa Cruz legend dubbed ‘Mr. Radical’ threw himself full speed into the natural playgrounds that surrounded him in the 1970s and 80s. His acumen and fearlessness gave him early notoriety, but he says that fame, fortune and accolades were never what he sought. Nonetheless, he was inducted into the Skateboarding Hall of Fame on Thursday night. He and his wife drove to the ceremony in the van they live in near Steamer Lane.
Kevin Reed pushes back the thick, long hair that was once part of his famous look, takes a drag off his cigarette and stares out over the railing at the overhead waves pouring into Steamer Lane. It’s the first northwest swell of the season and the time of year Santa Cruz surfers live for.
Reed ponders the last time, about a year ago, when he paddled out on one of the classic 1980s-inspired twin fins he designed, shaped and airbrushed by hand — back when surfing was still an obsession.
“I can still do it,” says Reed, at 63, still slight and sinewy even if the lines on his face reflect those of a man 10 years older. “I just don’t like the cold anymore.”
Instead, the person credited with inventing aerial surfing — an essential component of the sport’s modern competitive form — is only a fixture at its iconic surf break these days by virtue of where his weathered tan mini-van is parked on any given day.
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And whether or not he and his wife are getting hassled for the less-glamorous version of van life they are living as part of Santa Cruz’s unhoused population.
Reed, arguably the most innovative surfer and skateboarder ever to emerge from this board sports mecca, has remained largely an enigma. Because he was never one to chase after the spotlight, or stay connected to many, even most longtime staples of the surf and skate worlds don’t know the real Kevin Reed.
He’s more folklore than real person.
Bob Pearson, who has watched over him the closest like a surrogate parent and caretaker, knows Reed beyond the fables. And he says what he overcame to be there Thursday night as an inductee into the Skateboarding Hall of Fame — the childhood trauma, alcoholism, homelessness and murder charges — is as amazing as the award itself.
He hopes this is just the beginning of Reed getting his due respect and recognition. And, more importantly, Reed uses it to feed the good path he’s on.
“Knowing where he was headed,” says the surfboard shaper and Reed’s longtime friend, “I like knowing that he’s there in that parking lot and doing good now, relatively speaking. I like the fact that he’s walking the face of the earth.”
I like the fact that he’s walking the face of the earth.
* * *
Those who preferred the imagery of Kevin Reed soaring far above the earth have had much to be disappointed about for decades.
Some think of him as a still-living ghost, a relic of Santa Cruz’s dark, twisted past — punctuated by the murder charges he escaped after an incident on Cowell Beach in 2017 when a fellow homeless friend of his ended up dead the day after the two had fought.
Five years later, he is sheltered thanks to that aging, yet well-decorated and well-equipped, Honda Odyssey.
More importantly, with the help of his wife LeeAnn Sherwood — who he briefly dated at Santa Cruz High in the late 1970s before reconnecting with nearly 50 years later — he’s staying away from alcohol. Booze, he says, has always been his downfall.
But some who see him in those parking lots around the Lane wish he were out there in the lineup surfing rather than up there in his van smoking. They wonder what might’ve been for Kevin Reed.
Reed, though, is not one of those types. True to anti-hero form, he seems to relish the fact he’s always done it his way, whether others understood him or not. Second-guessing his legacy is not in Reed’s nature.
“I’ve never been about any of that — I just wanted to go surf and skate. Whatever people say they say,” he reasons. “I’ve always been kind of a loner.”
The most often-cited Kevin Reed myth — and the mythology runs deep — explains the mystical, ghost-like nature of his existence. Variations differ but it goes something like this:
Reed pulls up to the harbor mouth, alone, one day as a pulsing winter swell lights up the surf zone. The harbor is infamous in multiple ways. When it breaks, the unicorn of a wave detonates just off the giant stone jacks of the jetty over a shallow sandbar, forming a fabulous, terrifying, cylindrical slab.
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Reed puffs on a cigarette as he watches the top of waves reach skyward, up toward the mid-section of the nearby Walton Lighthouse.
Suddenly he is in motion: paddling out, pulling into a deep barrel, then quickly, magically, emerging back on shore — all before the still-burning cigarette, now comfortably back at his fingertips, has had time to expire.
* * *
Those who make it big in the surfing or skateboarding industry often have the marketable personalities to help push the brand of companies as much as the otherworldly skills to push the physical limits of their sport.
In the 1970s and 80s, as a rider for Doug Haut’s skateboard team and Pearson’s surf team, Reed had no problem redefining what was humanly possible in both sports.
“He was getting 20 feet of air before anyone had even thought about it,” said Santa Cruz surfboard shaper Joey Thomas, who mentored and shaped boards for Reed. “Pretty amazing stuff.”
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He earned himself the nickname “Mr. Radical” for his unique ability to soar high above the lip of a concrete pool or a peeling wave and stick the landing — an essential skill for today’s top competitive surfers and one for which Reed remains its largely forgotten pioneer.
Reed’s forward-thinking knack for innovation was undeniable. Yet he was never going to fit the mold of a Kelly Slater or a Tony Hawk when it came to fulfilling the personality demands required for long-term industry success, let alone fame and fortune.
He was running so fast, in so many different directions, people couldn’t keep up with Kevin.
“He was running so fast, in so many different directions, people couldn’t keep up with Kevin,” Pearson said. “Other guys would be going to Hawaii to surf a contest and Kevin would be running up to Año Nuevo or down to Big Sur to carve up some secret spot all by himself. He chose his own path.”
In a town that has spawned many surf and skate characters with bittersweet tales, Pearson is unequivocal in calling Reed its most unique. Propelled by the hardest of hardscrabble home lives and perhaps limited only by the demons that those traumatic beginnings stirred in him, the enigmatic Reed was a sight to see.
“He did things that nobody else could — and we all knew it,” Pearson said. “I’ve seen everybody surf and Kevin is one of the top 10 surfers in the world, ever. If I looked at it carefully, he might be in the top five. He was the first guy to do airs. He did aerials five years before anyone else.”
It explains why Thursday evening’s induction is such a big deal in tying his two pursuits together. The skateboarding pools of the early 70s were the training ground for the surfing aerials Reed would start landing and gaining notoriety for shortly thereafter. His 1975 Surfing magazine cover shot introduced the surf world to the potential of the skate world’s aerial influence.
The fact Reed was there in person to accept his induction into the Skateboarding Hall of Fame at the Vans headquarters in Southern California was a massive victory to the small circle of friends who have known him, loved him and helped pick him back up over the years.
While Reed might not prioritize reclaiming some of the lost glory that has largely been passed around in mythological bits and pieces, those who watched him in his youthful prime are stoked to see word spread more widely.
“He was just such an amazing athlete — coordination, balance, body awareness — he was catlike,” Pearson says. “He would fall out of the sky and land on his board like nothing was happening. He had so much confidence and then was innovative enough to pull it.
“Session after session, year after year, he left me shaking my head, going ‘Unbelievable…I can’t believe what I just witnessed.’”
As dangerous and death-defying as his feats may have looked, Reed’s baseline was different than most.
* * *
Callahan’s Pub still sits there on Water Street. Bill Callahan and Julie Reed, Kevin’s parents, added it to their stable of drinking establishments in the late 60s.
Kevin says it was no secret that his mom ran a brothel out of their Mott Street home in Seabright and was among the earliest drug kingpins in town. His dad departed when he was 4 and an equally abusive stepdad took his place, he says.
Kevin remembers spending a lot of his earliest days down on the beach, where the iconic Scholl-Mar Castle still stood and provided an outlet for his young curious mind.
“Julie Reed was one wild woman,” recalls Thomas. “She was doing a lot of things a mom shouldn’t be doing.”
Julie Reed was one wild woman. She was doing a lot of things a mom shouldn’t be doing.
Kevin and his brother Lance took the brunt of it. But Kevin’s answer to minimizing the discomforts of home was simple: escape.
He was surrounded by the perfect natural playgrounds and he threw himself into both burgeoning board-rider scenes on land and sea. Quickly he became a sponge, soaking up and processing the physical data of surfing and skateboarding at a rapid rate.
What people remember most, from early on, was his hyper-kinetic energy and his extremely creative mind.
“I’d be like ‘Kevin, we’ll go surf in five minutes. I gotta do something,’” Pearson said. “And he was like ‘I can’t wait! I gotta go!’ That was Kevin. Just so much energy”
“He would sit down and show me his sketchbook of these carving 360s he was envisioning. He’d file down these fins to make the curves just right for it,” said Richard Schmidt, who was about the same age and went to high school with Reed. “He really had this futuristic vibe to him so it was no big surprise when he started breaking barriers and taking things into the air.”
He really had this futuristic vibe to him so it was no big surprise when he started breaking barriers and taking things into the air.
But Schmidt said there was a level of visceral shock in seeing Reed go places that others had not. Especially with the postcard-like setting of Steamer Lane as a backdrop.
“To see him fly way high at the Lane with the lighthouse in the background, five feet off the water and still on his board, it was pretty dramatic,” he said.
The local surf photographers of the era, Bob Barbour and Chris Klopf, took notice and followed Reed up and down the coast. Barbour was perched on the beach at Año Nuevo the day Reed decided to drop into a wave in front of Pearson and launch an aerial over his friend’s head.
Somehow it worked, both emerged unscathed and it made for a great Pearson Arrow surfboard ad in the next month’s magazines.
But even though Reed had the stuff made for photo shoots, competitive surfing wasn’t yet ready for his style of acrobatics. Even in skateboard contests, people didn’t yet know how to judge the moves Reed was coming up with on the fly.
“He was way ahead of his time,” Pearson said.
* * *
Pearson thinks back to that day in 2017 when he and his daughter Kaila went to locate Reed, then living on the beach at Cowell’s.
Reed says he had been staying on a sailboat in the harbor illegally for about a decade and the harbor patrol finally caught on and gave him the boot.
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He had already befriended many others who were living among the growing number of unhoused in the area. Why not go join them on the beach, he said to himself?
Pearson had recently been gifted an old Kevin Reed model twin, hand-made and airbrushed by Kevin himself many decades earlier.
So he and Kaila brought it down to the beach with the hope it would stir some memories in Reed, make him want to get back to a sheltered existence, sobriety and maybe even get back in the ocean.
“Kevin saw us coming with that board,” Pearson said. “He gave us a big hug and there was a lot of love and tears.”
They believe it was the catalyst that both got him through his arrest on murder charges, which would happen just four days later, and set things in motion for a sober, more-stable future.
After the district attorney decided there wasn’t sufficient evidence to prove Reed’s contact with the victim had caused his death, his lifelong friend Mike White took him home and helped him get sober. That set the table for his life-changing reunion with Sherwood.
Fate and Facebook reconnected them in Flordia in 2018, where Kevin was living with his brother, trying to get himself back together. Sherwood had raised a son there and was living only an hour away.
Sherwood had been a gymnast when she caught Kevin’s eye at Santa Cruz High. He was shooting pictures for the school paper and used it as an excuse to get her attention, she recalls. They were together just briefly but often thought about each other over the years.
And then suddenly he was just an hour away, struggling with sobriety as she had many years earlier. She hopped on her Vespa scooter, maxed it out to 80 and the love connection was re-established. They were married soon thereafter.
The only problem: They both missed Santa Cruz tremendously and wanted to return. Ultimately van life was the obvious choice given the cost of living and limited financial resources.
It’s now been three years in the tan Honda Odyssey equipped with everything they need, including solar panels Reed installed on top.
His sobriety has been steady except for a brief span where Sherwood lived in the Benchlands away from Reed so that he could “work on himself.” He’s been “mostly sober for four years and completely sober for the last year and a half,” she says.
Sherwood, a character in her own right who captured her colorful story in a book called Around the World on a G-String, says she has been sober for 22 years.
For a while they were parking overnight on Delaware Avenue, part of the scene that’s created much controversy in recent months. Now they dodge and weave around Westside neighborhoods, hoping not to draw the ire of angry homeowners.
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It’s not an easy life, but it’s the one they’ve chosen for now. And days are mostly calm parked in the lot at Steamer Lane.
Sherwood is collecting Reed’s many stories for a future book. They’ve been invited by a friend down to Nicaragua where Kevin could teach surfing in the warm tropical waters.
Until then those like Schmidt, the greater-known and better-understood legend of Santa Cruz surfing, will keep trying to get Reed out of the van and back out there into the lineup at Steamer Lane.
“I won’t stop trying,” he said. “I think people think of Kevin as a positive light in the surfing community — and in surfing history.”