In Memoriam |
Kemp Aaberg

When we were kids growing up at our family home in Pacific Palisades, I thought my big brother Kemp Aaberg was invincible. A boy of boundless energy, he galloped his horse Venus bareback in the hills above town, pumped iron at the local gym, and played every sport at the park. In our backyard, Kemp built a high jump pit, a high bar for gymnastics, a duck pond, a rabbit hutch, and a special cage for his homing pigeons.

The summer of 1953, our father, Dr. EL Aaberg, a surgeon; and our mother, Jean Littlejohn Aaberg, a writer, divorced. To get out of town for a while, mom loaded Kemp, age 13; our brother Steve, 11; and 6-year-old me into her ’52 Nash Rambler station wagon and headed for Texas. Well before I-10 was built, the Rambler rumbled down old Route 66, across the deserts of Arizona and New Mexico to Marshall, a small town in East Texas where mom had family. There, Kemp, Steve, and I attended our great aunt’s five-week resident summer camp, Camp Fern, with its row of rustic log cabins, alongside a small lake in the piney woods, several miles outside of town.

For competitions, the hundred or so campers at Camp Fern were split into tribes, the Caddos and the Tejas. Kemp was voted chief of the Caddos and led his tribe to victory that summer. He won swimming, running, and canoe races, set a new chin-up record, and got first place in the horse show. After achieving the Pathfinder, the Hunter, the Brave, and every other award Camp Fern had to offer, the counselors had to invent a new one called the Arrow, just for Kemp. Maybe his frustration over not having a dad at home anymore contributed to Kemp’s incredible drive. I just know he had more focus than most kids.

When we returned to Pacific Palisades, Kemp dove into building free-flight model airplanes. I can look back and see that the way he meticulously followed the directions for constructing his model airplanes foreshadowed how he would later decipher the complex sheet music for a classical guitar piece he was working on, paying attention to every nuance, writing in the proper fingering and expression marks, to make sure the piece sounded polished and beautiful.

At University High School in West Los Angeles, Kemp excelled in track and field, especially pole vaulting. He trained vigorously after school. I remember watching him charge down the runway in his spiked track shoes, plant his pole, and swing his legs and body up and over the bar, 12 feet in the air. It was my job to catch his thick aluminum pole before it crashed to the ground. That year Kemp set a new pole vault record at Uni High and competed in the all-city track meet. But then, surfing took over.

There were very few surfers in Pacific Palisades during the mid ’50s. The summer of 1956, a guy named Jack Lamaroux loaned Kemp a heavy balsa-wood surfboard he’d made in his garage. At age 16, Kemp loaded it into the back of his Oldsmobile, drove up to Malibu, and rode his first wave toward shore, standing erect on the deck of the surfboard. “Ole!” He jazzed on surfing for life! His wave-riding ability progressed exponentially. Only two years after he started, he was chosen to be one of the stars in Bruce Brown’s first 16mm surfing movie, Slippery When Wet. Surf legend Lance Carson remembers the day Kemp returned from riding the “heavies” in Hawai’i, late November 1958. He was a different surfer, beaming with confidence. Lance witnessed Kemp fearlessly paddle his 9’6″ Velzy balsa board into huge waves at Rincon, climbing and dropping all the way to the seawall. Who is that guy? Surfers couldn’t believe it was Kemp.

The summer of 1959, Kemp was hired as a seasonal ocean lifeguard for Los Angeles County and stationed at Zuma Beach and Malibu. He also entered the Catalina to Manhattan Beach paddleboard race, winning it in a nail-biter finished with famous waterman Mike Doyle. That winter, John Severson captured an image of Kemp in the cove at Rincon, arching his back in a graceful turn, backlit by a translucent late-afternoon peeler. After the Rincon photo appeared in Severson’s inaugural 1960 issue of Surfer Magazine, and Bruce Brown’s Slippery When Wet screened at high schools and civic auditoriums in Southern California, Kemp was a surf hero overnight. The Kemp Aaberg classic arch became a widely imitated maneuver for legions of stoked Baby Boomer surfers. For years after, Severson used the iconic image of Kemp as his Surfer Magazine logo.

Enter the Spanish guitar. Kemp was enamored by the sassy bravado inherent in flamenco music. He listened hours on end to Sabicas records, bought a nylon-string Spanish guitar, and began practicing his picados and rasgueado strum. In the early ’60s, he befriended a brilliant young classical guitarist, Michael Lorimer, who later became a protégé of Andrés Segovia. Lorimer introduced Kemp to the majesty and charm of classical guitar playing. Kemp taught himself to read notes and assiduously studied proper classical technique. He even made two trips to Spain to learn flamenco from the gypsy players and classical guitar at the Segovia Master Classes in Santiago de Compostela. Kemp and Michael Lorimer, now a Santa Barbara resident, became lifelong friends, bound by their common love for the classical guitar.

Enchanted with the Santa Barbara area, Kemp enrolled in the 1960 fall quarter at UCSB. He and a couple of college buddies rented an old Victorian-style house on Butterfly Lane in sleepy Montecito, only a half-mile from their favorite secret surf spot, Hammond’s Reef. The Butterfly Lane house soon became a crash pad for traveling surfers and the site of many fun college keg parties. Between classes at UCSB, Kemp chugged down to Rincon in his beat-up ’55 Volkswagen bug to catch uncrowded waves. It was before the freeway. Often, even on big days, only a half-dozen surf wagons would be parked along the old coast highway, overlooking the break. Kemp, Bob Cooper, Renny Yater, Rick Kreisler, and a few other friends would be the only ones out on the point, getting the ride of their lives.

In 1974, after a four-year-long around-the-world odyssey, teaching school in Australia, erecting scaffolding in Germany, and picking grapes in the south of France, Kemp returned to Santa Barbara. He met and fell in love with his sweetheart and future wife, Ella. Together they bought a house in Goleta. Kemp worked for UPS as a driver and a loader. Many surf shop owners would recognize him in his brown UPS uniform, amazed to have their surf hero delivering their packages.

Always a man on the go, Kemp became obsessed with running marathons. He was a regular at the Santa Barbara marathon race and every other marathon race in California he could get to. But It was the advent of the triathlon endurance race that really piqued his interest, especially the Big Daddy of them all, the Ironman in Kona, on the Big Island of Hawaii. The race entailed a 2.4-mile ocean swim, followed by a 112-mile bicycle race, finishing with a 26.2-mile run. Perfect for Kemp! He trained like a man possessed. After his early morning shift pre-loading for UPS, he’d jump on his bike and ride from Goleta to Gaviota and back and follow up with a 12-mile run. Kemp did stacks of triathlons. In his forties, he entered the Ironman race twice, beating many of the younger competitors.

Kemp and Ella moved to the Mesa in Santa Barbara. They cherished living near the ocean and the sweet smell of the ozone and the invigorating fresh ocean breezes. After retiring from UPS in 2000, and backing off endurance races, Kemp focused on his original passions, surfing and playing guitar. He played for weddings, did volunteered performances at assisted living homes, and taught kids guitar for free at the YMCA. His quick wit and great sense of humor came through in the many articles he wrote for surf magazines and newspapers. Kemp stayed in top shape, doing daily year-around ocean swims at Leadbetter Beach, icy water and all.

The past few years, Kemp struggled with Parkinson’s disease. It was sad for everybody to see the disease progress and prevent him from doing the things he wanted. But he was a fighter. November 6, with his loving wife, Ella, at his side, Kemp passed away at home, peacefully in his sleep. He was just shy of 83. 

I am eternally grateful to have had Kemp as my brother. I was fortunate, as were many others, to have such a positive influence in my life. Kemp was a kind, fun-loving, humble man, who eschewed fame. He loved animals and nature. He loved people. He loved his wife. Now, his courageous spirit has moved on to the next dimension. I know he’s totally involved in some grand adventure. Here on earth, Kemp Aaberg will be dearly missed. His classic arch will be etched in the heart of surfing forever. We love you, brother.


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