Jim Eubank, Masters Standout, California Businessman, Passes Away at 87

SAN MARCOS, Calif., March 3. HE was a world-class swimmer who never took a lesson, a real estate developer who only took a few college courses, a businessman so hands-on he was sometimes mistaken for the hired help.

Jim Eubank, who left a mark on San Marcos that was larger than the city block his dream filled, died Monday afternoon of a stroke at Tri-City Medical Center. On Wednesday, his family spoke of a man who didn't know what retirement meant and who outswam men two decades his junior.

Eubank, who founded San Marcos' Old California Restaurant Row, was born Sept. 12, 1915, in Seattle. He grew up in Inglewood. As a child, he'd bike to the beach, where he taught himself to swim in the ocean, his wife, Vera Eubank, said.

"He never had a lesson," she said.

Eubank was a lifeguard in Los Angeles when he was approached by a Coast Guard recruiter looking for strong swimmers. He joined in 1942.

Soon afterward, he heard a loudspeaker announcement asking for volunteers for a special unit, called the Office of Strategic Services Maritime Unit. The announcer warned that members only had a 10 percent chance of survival. Eubank signed up.

Vera, who was dating him at the time — they married in 1945 — said she wondered what her sweetheart was thinking.

More than 60 years later, he explained his thoughts to the North County Times in a 1998 interview, "What was I going to tell my grandkids — that I was on shore patrol with the Coast Guard?"

Eubank spoke after he and 31 other original operatives received honorary green berets in a special ceremony in Fort Bragg, N.C. During the war, the operatives infiltrated enemy lines, gathered intelligence and sabotaged installations in Burma, Indonesia and other Pacific Islands. The OSS was a predecessor to today's Special Forces units in various branches of the military.

After the war, the Eubanks settled in Los Angeles, where, for $800, Jim bought a duplex and plunged into real estate. "He'd saved his cigar and beer rations (from the service) to get the cash," son Jerry Eubank said.

Soon he was creating subdivisions in the San Fernando Valley. And in Los Angeles, he built a mall, an unusual concept for the time, Jerry said.

"He was such a pioneer," Vera said.

In the 1970s, he brought that pioneering spirit to San Diego's North County, setting his sights on a swath of land in a boondock town filled with chicken ranches.

"He didn't have much of a formal education," son Bob Eubank said. "He did it all from intuition."

Eubank took some real estate courses and, in 2001, he received an honorary degree from Palomar College.

He turned that swath of land in San Marcos into Old California Restaurant Row. Even back then, he called San Marcos the heart of North County, a phrase he'd still be using decades later.

"When he put in two restaurants, they said: 'This is nuts,'" Bob Eubank said. "When he put in three, they thought he was crazy."

Even his sons had their misgivings. Bob Eubank said he opened a hamburger stand in restaurant row. He remembers telling his dad, "I haven't seen a car for 45 minutes."

The joke back then was that the official bird of San Marcos was the horsefly.

Jerry Eubank said his dad helped build much of the complex, hauling rocks from the Pauma Indian reservation and timber from old barns. When a suit-and-tie type, as his dad would say, asked a man operating a fork-lift where he could find Jim Eubank, he was surprised to discover he'd found him.

He was a man who worked seven days a week, but still made time for his daily workouts and his family, surfing with his boys in Hawaii and Newport Beach, the sons said.

He loved the come-from-behind win, whether it was in swimming or business, Bob Eubank said, saying others wouldn't have pursued Edwards Cinemas for as long as his father did. Today, the theater sits behind restaurant row.

Eubank stepped down as a manager of Restaurant Row last year after suffering his first stroke. He also suffered a stroke in 1983, which forced him to wear a pacemaker. In 2002, he stopped swimming, because he'd done it all.

"He went out to win, he didn't go to swim," Vera Eubank said.

And win he did. Eubank set world records in the 100-, 200-, 400-, 800- and 1,500-meter swims for his age group. He was a staple at the annual Oceanside Municipal Pier swim, which he won for the first time in 1937. Florence Chadwick, the first woman to swim the English Channel, won the women's race that year.

He also swam against Buster Crabbe, a gold medalist in the 400 during the 1932 Olympics. Crabbe went on to be Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers in a storied film career.

In the mid-1970s, the two met at the Senior Olympics and Eubank lapped Crabbe in the 1,500-meter-race.

In 2001, he was honored by SWIM Magazine as "Masters Swimmer of the Year."

Last year, Sports Illustrated columnist Rick Reilly read about Eubank and couldn't believe he wasn't hoodwinking the media. Eubank gamely challenged him to a 50-yard swim, beating the 40-something columnist by a body length.

"I hated him immediately," Reilly wrote in a 2003 column of their first encounter. "He had this huge shock of thick white hair. He looked like Lloyd Bridges at 50."

"No one has ever accused me of being old," Eubank told the North County Times in 2000.

He still wore a 32-inch waist and his pants would've fallen off without his staple suspenders, Bob Eubank said.

One other constant: Eubank's love of San Marcos and very concrete ideas about what it should be. He never missed an opportunity to talk about his vision for San Marcos, the need for a downtown and the opportunities Cal State San Marcos could provide the city. He recited his stump speech just about everywhere.

"I loved Jim Eubank," Councilman Lee Thibadeau said Wednesday. "He'd drive you crazy if you let him, because he always had some idea," Thibadeau added, recalling how Eubank insisted that he could find water for wells during a drought a decade ago.

The water district didn't bite, so Eubank doused and found enough water to build a well at Old California Restaurant Row.

"By golly, they laughed at him and he was right," Thibadeau said.

–Katherine Marks
North County Times