By Fred Swegles
If a retired Marine hadn’t fallen in love with the waves at San Onofre more than 50 years ago while serving at Camp Pendleton, San Clemente’s storied history in the competitive surfing world might have taken a different course.
William Conroy, a charismatic history and government teacher known by his students at San Clemente High as “Mr. Sam,” launched a varsity surf team in 1977.
He helped organize the South Coast League surf circuit, and he proceeded to coach the most dominant teams in the California Interscholastic Surfing Federation through 1991.
The retired educator died Feb. 7 at age 87. He will be remembered for his contributions to high school surfing as well as his role as president of the San Onofre Surf Club in the mid-1970s. He led the club’s fight to prevent the state parks department from paving over San Onofre Surf Beach.
The state, acknowledging protests, opted not to carry out a plan to pave the beach’s dirt road and build a campground on a bluff overlooking the beach. In addition, the club persuaded the state to preserve San O’s rustic look and limit the number of cars, to keep the waves from getting too crowded.
Conroy, a New York City native, picked up his nickname “Sam” during his time as a lifeguard there. He learned to surf in the 1950s while a Marine stationed in Hawaii. The Korean War veteran served nine years in the Corps.
Discharged in 1960, the former reconnaissance officer joined the San Onofre Surf Club, earned a teaching degree and was on staff at San Clemente High when the campus opened in 1964.
In 1977, athletic director Bill Hartman, himself a surfer, set out to establish surfing as a varsity sport. Hartman picked Conroy, the former Marine, to coach the team and give it direction.
“There was no pay for it,” Hartman told the Orange County Register in 2005. “I used to pay him as ‘assistant gymnastics coach.’ ”
During Conroy’s 14-season tenure, while Huntington Beach High was gaining acclaim racking up a succession of National Scholastic Surfing Association titles, SCHS was beating HB for the CISF state title most of those years. Conroy refused to compete at NSSA Nationals. He entered a team in 1982 and won, but he had differences with the NSSA. He said he wouldn’t be back.
During those early years, he told the Los Angeles Times in 1997, “We won nine of 11 state championships.”
Hartman, who died in 2017, was an assistant coach when Conroy stepped down at age 60. Hartman succeeded Conroy.
Several years later, team members asked Hartman to allow the team to compete at NSSA Nationals. Over the past 20 years, San Clemente, coached by Hartman and then by John Dowell, is the NSSA tournament’s winningest high school with 12 titles. HB has two. So do Hawaii’s Elite Element Academy and Kamehameha High. Carlsbad and San Dieguito each won one title. Conroy refused to take credit for his teams’ successes, laying it all on talented rosters led by world-class pro surfers-to-be.
“My mother could have had this record, and she doesn’t know one end of a surfboard from the other,” Conroy told me in 1991.
Conroy’s retirement article in the Sun Post described him as the “gung-ho, gravel-voiced guy in a red hat, a sort of cross between a Marine drill instructor, father figure, cheerleader and resident surf genius.”
His daughter, Christine Conroy Castro, said no services are planned, as family members may spread his ashes in June, closer to his birthday.
Chris Conroy, the 1986 Triton of the Year, was a member of her dad’s surf team as well as a standout in volleyball, soccer, track and swimming.
Mr. Sam was loved by all of his surf teams, his students, his Dana West boating buddies and all who enjoyed the jokes and stories he’d share at San Onofre, his daughter said. He was the teacher who would emcee all of the senior breakfasts, who would go to all of the reunions, she said.
“I felt like a celebrity’s kid,” she said. “As far as me, he was always my buddy. One thing I got from my dad was no matter how bad things get, there was always laughter. I was in awe at how many people were mesmerized by him. And I think I got a little of that. I’ve had people tell me, you are your dad in a skirt.”
Fred Swegles is a longtime San Clemente resident with more than 49 years of experience of reporting in the city.