Povletich's book takes us on a Sheboygan surfin' safari
The western coast of Lake Michigan is no Venice Beach.
But someone forgot to tell Lee and Larry Williams, the Sheboygan brothers who since the 1960s have been the poster boys for Great Lakes surfing. In addition to becoming surf icons thanks to the 2003 documentary film, "Step into Liquid," the Williams brothers also inspired the character Chicken Joe in the animated "Surf's Up."
The Williams brothers didn't bring surfing to the Great Lakes, or even to Sheboygan, says Bill Povletich, author of "Some Like It Cold: A Sheboygan Surfin' Safari" (Clerisy Press), which recounts the Williams' story.
"Ever since the mid-1960s, back when Frankie (Avalon) and Annette (Funicello) were the life of the party on America's beaches, surfing has been a part of Sheboygan's rich history," says Povletich, an award-winning documentary filmmaker who is also the author of "Milwaukee Braves: Heroes and Heartache" and "Green Bay Packers: Legends in Green and Gold."
But Lee and Larry were bitten by the bug in a way that no one else was.
"During those early days of the Lake Shore Surf Club, Lee and Larry Williams were just junior high students idolizing those dozen of high schoolers riding surfboards. They stood outside the group's garage every morning for an entire summer just waiting for the chance to help wax a surfboard or get invited to the beach to surf a set of waves.
"Lee and Larry were so determined to be respected as local surfers, they organized their own surfing group -- the Great Lakes Surf Club -- just to prove to the older kids they were serious about surfing. As everybody got a little older, their interest in surfing waned -- except for Lee and Larry -- who continue to surf to this day."
And it is through surfing that the Williams brothers have made their mark on Sheboygan. For more than two decades they've been hosting other surf communities, including places like Duluth, Minn., Gary, Ind., Cleveland, Wydewood, Ont., Chicago, Racine and Milwaukee for the annual Labor Day weekend Dairyland Surf Classic.
The event has crested to become the world's largest gathering of freshwater surfers. Their appearance in "Step into Liquid" helped mark Sheboygan as a surfing destination, too.
Povletich's nearly 200-page book about the Williams brothers tracks their passion for surfing the Lake Michigan breakers, but it's more than a book about sport.
We watch Lee and Larry grow up and we watch their lives rise to meet the waves and crash down hard on the rocks, too. There are marital problems, gravely ill spouses, near-tragedies and the kind of tragedy no parent can bear to hear.
"As much as the surfing lifestyle is romanticized in movies, books and magazines, it's important to realize that surfers are real people, with real lives," says Povletich. "Lee and Larry are no different. Their lives are filled with the same successes, failures, joys and heartbreak as all of us.
"As exciting as the adventure of surfing Sheboygan by itself, the dramatic twists and turns of Lee and Larry's lives became all the more compelling when set against the dramatic backdrop of surfing between icebergs in subzero wind chills and 33-degree water. As much as this is a book about surfing, it's also about how no matter what happened in Lee and Larry's lives, they always had surfing and, more importantly, each other."
So, how did Povletich come to write a book about the Williams brothers? It started, he said, with an "urban legend."
"Nearly two decades ago, I first began hearing of an 'urban legend' about a group of guys from Sheboygan who surfed," he recalls. "I had spent many hours mesmerized by the lake's crystal blue waves, but never once considered surfing them, growing up in a house that overlooked Lake Michigan in nearby Mequon. It was soon after that I realized how unique this Malibu of the Midwest was becoming as surfers in California upon meeting me would immediately ask, 'Do you know those guys from 'Step Into Liquid'? Sheboygan would be a gnarly place to surf! Have you?'
"That's when I realized the Williams' story had an unequivocal universal appeal beyond the novelty of surfing in the Midwest."
A little over two years ago, Povletich approached the Williams brothers at the Highland House in Sheboygan and discussed putting their unique story down on paper.
"Over a few beers, we began outlining their life story on a bar napkin and the rest is, as they say, history in the making."
Povletich says that he found the Williams brothers to be inspiring; everyday people who have never waved from following their life's passion. Writing the book has changed his perspective.
"For starters, I'll never look at a Lake Michigan wave the same again," he says. "Before writing this book, I never once considered surfing the Great Lakes frigid waters to be a rational form of recreation during even the muggiest of summer afternoons. Now, if the weather conditions were favorable, I'd be atop a surfboard in a heartbeat.
"I have a new-found appreciation for everyone associated with the Sheboygan surfing scene. Not only is it the most generous, warm-hearted group of folks I've ever met, but they're always eager to invite more friends to the party. It's really an inspiring group to be associated with.
"Those original Lake Shore Surf Club members prided themselves on rebelling against the social norms of the time. They focused their adolescent passion towards riding waves during ideal weather conditions of subzero wind chills and water temperatures hovering around 33 degrees.
"Today, it's a very family friendly environment. Now parents bring their kids, as young as 5 years old, to the beach in hopes of them catching their first waves. Sheboyganites, with their world-renowned congeniality, have always prided themselves on inviting anyone and everyone into the water. Lake Michigan's waves are to be shared and if someone doesn't have all the proper gear, including a surfboard, the odds are someone will loan you what you need to 'share in the stoke' for the afternoon."
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