You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

'Mouse Would Go:' Legendary San Diego surfer Jim Robb dies at 87

San Diego Union Tribune logo San Diego Union Tribune 4/30/2021 John Wilkens
a man wearing a hat: Jim "Mouse" Robb (Courtesy of Robb family) © (Courtesy of Robb family) Jim "Mouse" Robb (Courtesy of Robb family)

Jim "Mouse" Robb, a legendary San Diego surfer who started riding waves in the 1940s on 70-pound longboards made out of redwood, and who 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, especially in Ocean Beach, inspired a bumper sticker, "Mouse Would Go," which nods to his eagerness to surf even the biggest waves, and to his willingness to help people as a mentor, electrician, and do-whatever-it-takes volunteer.

"We all tried to be like him," 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.

a person surfing in the water: Jim Robb with his longtime tandem partner, Judy Dibble. (Robb Family Archives) © (Robb Family Archives) Jim Robb with his longtime tandem partner, Judy Dibble. (Robb Family Archives)

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 said, 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 have foam cores now 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 Narrangansett Avenue.

They arrived in 1940. Robb was seven. 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.

a group of people posing for a photo: Jim Robb, second from left, with friends and local lifeguards in 1947. (Robb Family Archives) © (Robb Family Archives) Jim Robb, second from left, with friends and local lifeguards in 1947. (Robb Family Archives)

One of the lifeguards also gave him his nickname. Robb was short and he walked with his chest out, he told the Union-Tribune in a 1996 interview, and that reminded the lifeguard of Mighty Mouse, the cartoon character.

He 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 U.S. Air Force, then came home to San Diego and what seemed like the perfect job: Lifeguard. Some of his rescues in the mid-1950s still get 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 in 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 he met in and around the ocean, Robb became Brown's friend and guide. Brown grew up to be a lifeguard, too. Then (as he puts it) 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, who is 80 now. "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 lifeguarding 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.

And he surfed and swam and dived whenever he could, earning a label of respect, "waterman." He was often 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.

a man holding a snow board: Jim Robb in the 1940s. (Robb Family Archives) © (Robb Family Archives) Jim Robb in the 1940s. (Robb Family Archives)

In the community, Robb volunteered for numerous 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 to be erected. 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 issued a proclamation for "Jim 'Mouse' Robb Day" in April 2013, timed to his 80th birthday.

“Mouse is like a San Diego Willie Nelson," city lifeguard Shiloh Spangler told the San Diego Reader for a 2016 cover story. "He has this wisdom, but without the pot smoking. He’s got that smile, and a huge childlike heart. You always feel better after you talk to the guy.”

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 service paddle-out is being 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."

This story originally appeared in San Diego Union-Tribune.

AdChoices
AdChoices

More From San Diego Union Tribune

San Diego Union Tribune
San Diego Union Tribune
image beaconimage beaconimage beacon