Here is a story I wrote in 2002 for Inside Surf magazine about Robert “Wally” Waldemar. “Uncle Walt” as he was as he was affectionately dubbed, was a pillar in the Westside Santa Cruz surfing community. He recently passed away after a long battle.
I am tracking down images that I made of him over the years.
Robert “Wally” Waldemar: A West Side Story By David Royal © 2002
Early morning mist still hangs on the coast and filters the sunshine as it descends onto West Cliff Drive. Sea lions yelp with their usual fury as the crashing of waves announce the presence of swell at the Lane. From a rust-white 1964 Ford Valiant steps a thinly framed man with round spectacles. He quietly makes his way to the top of the stairs at the lane. Slowly and ceremoniously Robert “Wally” Waldemar bends down, removes a handful of wilted flowers from the pair of vases strapped to the railings and replaces them with fresh palm fronds from his home. Minutes later he is suited up and jumping off the point, just as hooked on surfing as he was in the summer of 1968, when he first dragged a board to the water at Cowell’s.
Growing up, Wally was lucky enough to see a Santa Cruz that few youth of today can imagine. “Most everybody knew each other or they knew your grandparents,” Wally reflects. Surfing was a tighter niche as well. Surfers like Danny Anderson, Roger Adams and Joey Thomas, provided inspiration in the water. “J.T. has had a hold on Steamers for quite some time now,” Wally says.
In 1977 Wally was featured on the cover of Surfing Magazine. For Wally “the cover was something that I used to go to bed at night and dream about, and when it happened I couldn’t believe it.” While Wally has never considered himself a role model, his image deep in a Stockton Avenue barrel certainly pushed successive generations of local surfers deeper into the pit. “As a kid I remember jumping off the point and there was Walt carving, butter-smooth,” says Craig Lambert, who is somewhere slightly lower on the West Side family tree. “Kevin Reed and Walt were yelling and screaming amongst a crew of old timers at the Lane. Walt was all over the place like a coat of paint.”
Walt’s moves have turned some heads over the years. “Walt does have some style and grace,” Shaun Barron says, who grew up across the street from Waldemar. “I think Joel Tudor even says he’s one of the best longboarders in the world.”
However, Wally’s life hasn’t always been as smooth as his surfing. A bout with cancer in 1989 taught Wally a lot about himself. “When I went through my cancer scare and was able to survive I was given an inner strength that I never knew I had,” Walt says. “Something deep inside lets me know that I can face almost anything.”
“The role models of today are the guys who don’t let fame or fortune change who they are,” says Walt, “the surfers who charge no matter if cameras are there or not.” As Walt’s life continues to move with the flow of the tides, and he’s still jumping off the point in the early morning hours, one can’t help but wonder if there’s a role model somewhere inside Wally just waiting to be recognized.