Surf Ohio makes a splash
A big shout-out from The Beach Boys helped.
Ron Kaplan and three of his four sons went to the Ohio State Fair, an annual tradition since the mid1980s, to present The Beach Boys with the 40th anniversary Surf Ohio T-shirts. From left: Mike Love (Beach Boys), Max Kaplan (son), Zach Traxler (son), Ron Kaplan, Bruce Johnston (Beach Boys), Mitch Kaplan (son). CONTRIBUTED
By Beth Anspach
Contributing Writer

During the record-setting blizzard of 1978, Ron Kaplan of Kettering was a college student in Athens and attending Ohio University.

“In Athens, I remember it was not that bad,” Kaplan said. “But classes were canceled, and everybody panicked.”

Kaplan was working at a local shop called The Underwear at the time. He said in the aftermath of the storm, everyone was printing up blizzard shirts. But he wanted to do something completely different.

“In high school, I had two primary interests,” Kaplan said. “Aviation because my dad was a pilot in World War II and surfer and beach mythology.”

Kaplan’s interest led him not only to an infatuation with musicians like Jan and Dean and The Beach Boys, but also to drawings and paintings of surfing and beach scenes. His high school Whetstone, which overlooked the Olentangy River in Columbus, inspired him to create his first T-shirt design.

“A neighbor taught me how to screen print shirts in my garage,” Kaplan said. “I started toying with the surf the Olentangy as a concept and in the summer of 1976, when the Beach Boys came to Columbus, I did a palm tree design on the front of a shirt and I came up with a fictitious surfing contest design for the back.”

In Athens, Kaplan showed his shirt design to his boss at The Underwear, who wanted to know what Kaplan would do on the front.

“I whipped up a Surf Ohio logo,” Kaplan said. “I printed up fliers with the back of the shirts that said T978 Hocking River Master Surfing Classic.’ We did some guerrilla marketing, which wasn’t even a real term then!” The little shop in Athens sold out of the shirts, which became a cult phenomenon. And Kaplan left Athens and got a job at a large company in Columbus. By 1982, investors had set him up with his own business, Kaplan Graphics.

“Surf Ohio was my flagship design,” Kaplan said. “A few years later, backers sold out to me and a friend from high school became my partner.”

The company continued to grow both locally and nationally, garnering a reputation in Hollywood and with production companies filming on location in Ohio.

“The Ohio Film Commission in the mid-1980s used Surf Ohio’s T-shirts and hats to give to crews and directors scouting locations in Ohio,” Kaplan said.

In its heyday, Kaplan Graphics was producing designs on T-shirts for 22 different locations in Ohio using bodies of water from Lake Erie to the Cuyahoga River. Other “Surf” locations included Surf Detroit, Surf Chicago and Surf Atlanta and the brand expanded into major department stores like Macy’s and Nordstrom.

“We got a lot of publicity thanks in large part to our Beach Boys relationship,” Kaplan said. “I met a keyboard player, Sterling Smith, who was from Columbus and he wore his shirt on stage and that started the relationship in 1982.”

Kaplan said he met the band for the first time at the Ohio State Fair and Dennis Wilson wore a Surf Ohio shirt for the entire show.

With his business booming, Kaplan was busier than ever, doing promotions and live radio and television shows as the 1990’s unfolded. Then Lazarus department stores filed for bankruptcy and Kaplan’s company had thousands of shirts and no place to send them.

“I was getting frustrated and it started wearing on me,” Kaplan said. “I realized I was spending more time running the business than I was on the art board.”

Kaplan decided to start painting again and went back to his childhood passion. In 1994, he completed the sale of Kaplan Graphics to his partner and was attending the Dayton Air Show when he met his current wife, Jennifer, which eventually brought him to Kettering.

“I retained the rights to Surf Ohio when I sold the company because it was my baby and I knew I’d come back to it,” Kaplan said.

And in 2007, that’s exactly what he did when he discovered that was available just in time for the 30th anniversary.

“My former partner contacted me and said there was an OU graduate, Ryan Vesler, who was working out of his parents’ basement in Bexley and wanted to reproduce and market my old T-shirt designs,” Kaplan said. “That validated it for me that it was worth bringing Surf Ohio back.”

Today Surf Ohio shirts and merchandise are available online and through Vesler’s stores, Homage, and online through the website. And this fall they will be coming back to Athens for the first time since 1996.

And earlier this month, Kaplan was back at the Ohio State Fair, along with his sons, Zack, Mitch and Max presenting the Beach Boys with the 40th anniversary Surf Ohio shirts and hats before their concert performance.

“Bruce Johnston and I reminisced about the first time they received the shirts at the show back in 1978,” Kaplan said. “Mike Love gave Surf Ohio a shout-out at the end of their surf music set, and I look forward to seeing them again in November when they play at the Schuster Center.”

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