The dog days of summer are now behind of us, but for retired LAFD Engineer Gene Cooper, the sun is far from setting, and on the contrary, his future is brighter than ever. From helping his dad with construction as a boy, to building his own surfboard company, Gene Cooper is one talented individual. Oh, and did I mention he was a Los Angeles City Fire Department Engineer as well?
Gene was born in 1956 in Woodland Hills, CA. Growing up in the San Fernando Valley, then later in Newport Beach, Gene was born to build. Practically raised with some sort of tool in his hand, be it a hammer or a planer, the job site became his second home as he worked side-by-side with his father all day long learning the necessary skills to be a competent craftsman. Gene also honed his visual skills as a photographer shooting pictures of families visiting Balboa Island for a little extra spending money.
Today, Gene has exceeded even his own expectations of himself when it comes to building something with his bare hands. The creator of Cooperfish Surfboards, a custom line of handmade surfboards, Gene’s products are not only sought out by local surfers, but from water sports enthusiasts throughout the world.
Gene began his career of creating boards not too long after he began surfing. His first victim was a 1966 8-foot, 6-inch Greg Noll film production board. Seeing the trend in surfing magazines, he quickly cut it down to 6-foot, 6-inches. Many old boards would fall under his creative hands, sometimes a good thing, but others not so much. In 1973, however, he took his trade to the next level after learning a few tricks from a talented builder friend. Gene would continue his skill-building working at companies such as California Foam, creating boards under other companies’ labels.
Gene’s career path included a minor college stint but school was not in his future. A career was just around the corner though—one that would play a major role in all aspects of his life. In 1978 Gene joined the LAFD and began his career in Battalion 4. Fire Stations 5, 63, and 62 were his probationary rotation houses. After a year and a half, his ambition to promote would send him south to Station 66 and then on to 39 where he would make his promotion to Engineer. The jungle called out and Gene was assigned to Fire Station 94. He enjoyed the life as an Engineer but still had ambition to move up the promotional ladder. That is, until Captain Benkosky, a skipper on the “C” shift at 94 showed him the errors of his ways and convinced him to enjoy the life of an Engineer and not promote further. He took the advice to heart and never looked back.
Striving to be the best Engineer, Gene’s skills of building boards was placed on hold, but he continued his love of photography, his work appearing in multiple art galleries. In 1991, an opportunity to jump back into his other passion presented itself. Assigned to Fire Station 69, a surfer’s paradise, Gene decided he needed to build himself a new board. Like kids in the candy shop, the rest of the crew saw his creation and wanted one as well—The Cooperfish brand name was born. Gene had intentions to build only 13 Cooperfish boards for the guys at the station but placing his name on a product caused him to raise the bar on his board-building and people soon started to notice. At the time, most of the boards were light-weight progressive boards while Gene’s were of the traditional build—a style not often seen at the time. Knowing their value, Gene began building his style of board, working out of his house. That is until Jantzen, his wife of nearly 34 years, said “enough” and he was forced into a storage container placed on A/O Greg Ibers’ property in Malibu. With his business growing, Gene was able to expand and he finally built his own board factory in Ventura, California. He hired a few talented guys to help out sanding, laminating, and polishing his product and the rest is history.
Gene has gone on to make surfing history, working on movie productions such as Big Wednesday and others. In 2015, Gene was one of four board builders selected to compete for “The Ultimate Craftsman” where he took first place. His crowning achievement would follow a few years later, when in 2021, he was inducted into the International Board Builders Hall of Fame. Now, for most that would be enough for a complete life—not Gene. In 2022, while working on a side project, Gene was approached by Modernica, a high-end furniture manufacturer to create something that has brought new inspiration into his life. Seeing his work in fabricating boards, Modernica had asked if he could use his talents and construct a new line of products using materials similar to what he used in his boards—the product was a chair. Yes, a chair, but not just an ordinary chair. His chair would be different than anything out there. Reminiscent of the 1960s, this retro style chair would employ his creative skills of working with fibrous fiberglass cloth and blending it into a design he would later call Tiger Stripe. Skillfully, Gene places the colored fiber glass material into a design mold where it is then exposed to extremely high pressures, forming the material into a classically designed chair. So far, a limited number of chairs have been produced but sold out quickly. Gene and Modernica are now ramping up production to keep up with demand, and just like that, a second career was born for Gene.
Gene retired from the Fire Department in August of 2009, after 32 years of dedicated service and is well established in both his life and business. He tragically lost his wife in 2020 to a long-term-illness, but his love for her, along with a solid work ethic stowed upon him at a young age by his father has enabled Gene to proudly carry on the family name of creating things for others while making a name for himself. He has also continued on the LAFD tradition of giving back, supporting such groups as Veterans Adaptive Surf Camp and The Surfing Heritage Foundation.
2023 is now here and Gene shows no signs of slowing down. As world-famous surfer Kelly Slater once said, “Your surfing can get better on every turn, on every wave you catch.” Gene has applied this philosophy to everything he has built—and learned that the “best wave of your life is still out there,” you just need to go out and ride it. Cowabunga!!!
By John Hicks