February 19, 2012
By Kim KincaidAt my family’s Christmas gift exchange, the Surf Ohio T-shirt my brother-in-law brought was the item we were all ready to trade our children to attain. With few exceptions, all 16 of us traded our gifts for the shirt that read Surf Ohio on one side, and Ottawa River Masters Surfing Classic, Lima, Ohio, on the other.Because of that Lima connection, my husband was the last gift grabber and ultimate winner.I complained loudly enough that for my birthday, my brother-in-law sent me my own Surf Ohio swag. And with it, he told me the guy responsible for the shirt was from our shared alma mater, Ohio University in Athens.I had to call him. From somewhere in the depths of my memory, I remembered Surf Ohio when I roamed the streets of Athens. And sure enough, Ron Kaplan, Surf Ohio founder, said my memory was not faulty. He had gotten his start selling the shirts at OU in the late ‘70s.Back when it meant something. Back in the day. My day.“Actually, I first sold them in Columbus. I grew up there on the Olentangy River. My brothers used to have a lot of Beach Boys albums, and as a young teen I would listen to those, and I was obsessed with the beach scene and sunsets. When the Beach Boys played in Columbus, I came up with the idea of the Olentangy Surfing Classic and put it on T-shirts that I thought the band would enjoy me selling in the parking lot. Thankfully, I didn’t get busted for that,” Kaplan said.Fast forward a few years to Ohio University, and he was still designing shirts for sale. In 1976, he printed “Disco Sucks” on the shirts. The following year, “Disco Still Sucks.”Can’t argue with that.In ‘78, he used his Surf Ohio concept with the local waterway nearest Athens, the Hocking River. To promote the shirts, signs were hung around town promoting the Hocking River surfing classic. Such was the stampede of college kids to register for the classic that the school newspaper had to print a story saying the surfing classic was a hoax to sell T-shirts. Adding insult to injury, the $4.49 price to enter the competition was actually just the price of the shirt.“At the time, I was printing them in an empty dorm room,” Kaplan said. He couldn’t keep up with the demand and soon abandoned the plan to head home for Christmas vacation.Priorities.After graduation, he reinvented the idea and sold the concept to actors on Family Ties, which was supposedly set in Ohio. Those crazy kids wore some of the shirts during that program’s heyday.But time moves on, and so did Kaplan.He took a job with a non-profit, got married and had twin sons. But as his sons got older, they suggested he kick-start the Surf Ohio concept again.“I agreed that it was time to get my entreprenuerial DNA stirred up again, so Surf Ohio started again,” Kaplan said.He has gotten orders for the shirts from as far away as Hawaii. “One guy told me his first Surf Ohio shirt was threadbare, but he still wore and still got lots of comments on it whenever he brought it out,” Kaplan said.The shirts have turned up in unusual places, including on the backs of the Ohio band, The Black Keys, who wore them in concert.“The 20-somethings think they’re the coolest thing,” he said, chuckling at the resurgent popularity. He has also spoken with folks from the television shows “Glee” and “Hot in Cleveland,” both set in Ohio, to see if there was interest there.“This isn’t my full-time job. It’s my hobby, but it’s fun to see where it goes,” Kaplan said.I told him the shirts went to our Christmas, and they were the hit of the party. He didn’t seem surprised.