After Charlie Bunger made his first surfboard over half a century ago, he slapped his name on it. Unbeknownst to anyone at the time, that last-minute addition would become the stuff of surfing lore and would vault Bunger into legendary status.
Bunger, a West Gilgo resident who owned and operated Bunger Surf Shop in Babylon for 56 years, died Monday of lymphoma at Good Samaritan Hospital in West Islip. He was 77.
Bunger, who was born on Feb. 5, 1941, in Brooklyn and moved to Lindenhurst as a child, was an inductee of both the East Coast Surfing Half of Fame and the International Surfboard Builders Hall of Fame.
“It was his life,” Bunger’s son, Charlie Jr., 47 of Babylon Village, said of his father’s commitment to surfboard building. “That’s his legacy. His life was dedicated to his family and his business. That’s all he had and all he wanted.”
It all started at Gilgo Beach.
“He used to hang out at Gilgo when he was younger and guys started showing up with different boards from different places and he said, ‘Why don’t I just make one of those myself?’ ” Charlie Jr. said.
Bunger made his first board in the basement of his Lindenhurst home.
“He shaped the surfboard, glassed the surfboard, and put the fin on it,” Charlie Jr. said. “He didn’t know what else to write on it, so he just wrote his last name — ‘Bunger’ — on it in big letters.”
The name would never be the same.
“His name is synonymous with surfboards up and down the East Coast,” Charlie Jr. said. “He’s recognized around the world as a surfboard manufacturer.”
Bunger’s surfboards were virtually an instant hit. When his brother-in-law, the late Jim Rorech of Lindenhurst, started to take them around to local beaches, surfers started banging on Bunger’s door, asking for one for themselves.
“People just started showing up at his house in Lindenhurst and saying, ‘Here’s $20, can you make me a board?’ ” Charlie Jr. said. “He just started taking orders for boards and finally got to a point where he had to get out of his house. He moved it into his garage, then finally moved into a factory where he manufactured them. Then, by 1962, he had to open up a shop and started selling them because it just started blowing up on him.”
The Babylon shop is the oldest surf company store in North America among shops that have never changed ownership or location, surfing historian, former employee and longtime friend Mark Fragale said.
“He pretty much stopped riding the boards when he was in his 40s, but he never stopped surfing in his mind,” said Fragale, 67, who grew up in Garden City and now lives in Hawaii. “Charlie never stopped keeping an eye on the industry, the riders, and the trends.”
“He was a waterman,” said Bruce Gabrielson, 73, of Maryland, International Surfboard Builders Hall of Fame East Coast director. “That’s someone who understands the surf, understands the waves, had surfed many years, and had an all-around good character.”
Over 50 years later, he remained a constant presence in the shop and did so until his passing
“Charlie was there, like the mayor,” Fragale said. “People would drive from afar just to meet him and shake his hand.”
Bunger had other interests as well. A huge soccer fan, he played the sport into his 50s. He also loved to golf.
Bunger is survived by children Charlie Jr., Theresa Negron of Babylon, Susan Giovinazzo of Oak Beach, and Tommy of Babylon, seven grandchildren, four step-grandchildren, and his wife of 54 years, Janet.
A wake is scheduled Monday, 2-4 p.m. and 7-9 p.m., at Claude R. Boyd-Spencer Funeral Home in Babylon. There will be no funeral. Bunger’s remains will be cremated.