Words to live by from Joe Nuzzo, Treasure Island surf pioneer, who died at 78

Joe Nuzzo “seems to chase every ray of light, every turn of the surf and every opportunity to run after the pleasures of life,” a Tampa Tribune reporter wrote in 1987.

For most of the last 50 years, you could find Joe at his iconic business in Treasure Island. If he wasn’t at Suncoast Surf Shop, maybe he was on that chase — surfing in Mexico or sailing to Havana or paddling in Puerto Rico. Maybe he was falling in love or out of it. Maybe he was out with “The Lunch Club for Men,” which included women. Maybe he was just at the beach with his son, Jonah.

Joe knew the mild-mannered Gulf of Mexico had waves worth surfing, and he built a life out of making sure other people knew it, too.

He died at home under hospice care on Sept. 23. He was 78.

Between 1956 and 2018, Joe appeared in the news many times. Here are some of the wise words he shared.

From the St. Petersburg Times, July 5, 1956.
From the St. Petersburg Times, July 5, 1956. [ Via newspapers.com ]

“The world goes too fast. You wish you could slow it down and people could look and analyze themselves. They run everywhere and get nowhere. Ninety-five percent of them never get to enjoy life. They’re caught up with what they’re doing at the moment. I won’t let that happen to me.”

In 1954, the four Nuzzo kids moved with their newly single mom from New York to Florida, into a house steps from the beach on Pass-A-Grille.

“He just loved the water,” said little sister Geraldine Nuzzo-Carl.

Joe, the eldest, was in charge while their mom worked.

He grew up and joined the Navy. Then, he found surfing.

From the Tampa Tribune, Aug. 16, 1987.
From the Tampa Tribune, Aug. 16, 1987. [ Via newspapers.com. ]

“I said, ‘I’m going to ride waves for the rest of my life.’”

The story that’s told again and again in the archives goes like this: On a visit home from California, Joe saw the waves after a big storm and knew more people needed to get out there. He came back, then drove to Cocoa Beach several times a week to buy surfboards. He sold them for a small profit. He quit his day job and put the $300 he’d saved toward a vacant store in Treasure Island. That landlord didn’t like the kind of people the shop was attracting, and Joe moved.

Treasure Island tried to ban surfing. It didn’t last long.

“He would go and fight for it, and they finally left them alone,” said Nuzzo-Carl, who worked for her brother for 40 years.

She learned how to run the surf shop on the job, while her brother spent months each year out seeing the world. His instructions were simple:

“He didn’t tell me anything,” she said. “Just ‘watch the store.’”

Treasure Island's Joe Nuzzo tries out surfing in Puerto Rico in this Feb. 6, 1969 photo.
Treasure Island’s Joe Nuzzo tries out surfing in Puerto Rico in this Feb. 6, 1969 photo. [ JOHN SEVERSON | Times files ]

“So many people are trapped. They’re afraid to step out and take a chance. I’m lucky. It is like I threaded the needle with one shot. One try, and it all worked out well.”

A negotiation over a pair of turquoise Vuarnet sunglasses led to a long friendship between Joe and Gail Gilchrist.

That was 40 years ago. She still has the sunglasses.

Joe taught her to paddleboard and sailed with her to Havana. He had friends all over town and all over the world, and if he thought they should know each other, he made sure it happened.

“He was the great connector,” Gilchrist said.

Joe Nuzzo thought life was sweet when there was nothing but the surf and sun and some friends.
Joe Nuzzo thought life was sweet when there was nothing but the surf and sun and some friends. [ TRIPP, WEAVER | St. Petersburg Times ]

“I am happy. I don’t have an identity crisis. I know who I am, even if it is tough to explain to some people why it is so important to have fun. I almost wish everyone would sail and surf and travel.”

When he lost a friend, Joe would get sad. Then, he’d go on an adventure. He was pragmatic about death, Gilchrist said.

“He was more about life.”

In the last month, he’d been looking for a camper van. He found the perfect one — a bargain, which he loved — on the day he died.

Gilchrist bought it.

“I’m going to start going on Joe-ventures,” she said. “Everyone should go on a Joe-venture.”

A paddle out ceremony will be held for Joe Nuzzo at 6 p.m., Thursday, Oct. 7, at the Sunset Beach Pavilion on Treasure Island.

Joe Nuzzo gave the shaka/hang-lose sign in front of his shop on Jan. 24, 2016.
Joe Nuzzo gave the shaka/hang-lose sign in front of his shop on Jan. 24, 2016. [ LANCE ARAM ROTHSTEIN | Tampa Bay Times ]
Joe Nuzzo, owner of the Suncoast Surf Shop, checked the surf created by Hurricane Ike in 2008.
Joe Nuzzo, owner of the Suncoast Surf Shop, checked the surf created by Hurricane Ike in 2008. [ DIEZ, CHERIE | St. Petersburg Times ]
Joe Nuzzo on Sept. 10, 2008. Nuzzo, 65 at the time, took his long board out to the beach to check the surf created by Hurricane Ike.
Joe Nuzzo on Sept. 10, 2008. Nuzzo, 65 at the time, took his long board out to the beach to check the surf created by Hurricane Ike. [ DIEZ, CHERIE | St. Petersburg Times ]

Poynter news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story.

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