In his youth, Russ Lesser recalls a Manhattan Beach that consisted mostly of small beach cottages that served as summer homes. His family was one of the few that lived there year-round.
“The house I grew up in was built in 1909, and my grandparents purchased it in 1917 for $1,000. Much of the beach area and the rest of the city consisted of vacant lots,” he says. “As soon as school was out, we spent every free hour on the beach. We learned to body surf, and people rode waves on inflatable pillows, then later surf mats. Surfing wasn’t popular when I was a kid. Those were the days before the wet suit.”
Today Russ still spends most days wearing beach attire—working in the corner office of the company that would fix the problem of no wet suits. He is the 23-year president of Body Glove, LLC, the inventor of the modern wet suit and one of the most recognized surf and water sports brands worldwide.
He still calls Manhattan Beach home. He lives directly across the street from his parents’ old house with wife Charlotte—the college co-ed who stole his heart “at first sight” nearly 50 years ago.
“There was never any doubt this was the girl I wanted to spend the rest of my life with,” Russ says. “It’s been easy. She’s made me happier than any man deserves to be. I stole that from Ronald Reagan, who said that about his wife, Nancy, but it’s true.”
For Charlotte Lesser, the feeling was—and is—mutual. Thinking they might make a good match, Charlotte’s roommate at the University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB), also Russ’ cousin, invited them to her house in the San Fernando Valley. That night, the two partnered to play the card game Hearts into the “wee hours” of the morning.
“We were partners at Hearts, and we’ve been partners ever since. I took one look at him and said, ‘Oh my gosh! What would it be like to spend the rest of my life with this guy?’” Charlotte says.
She continues, “The first thing Russ did when he met me was buy me diving lessons at Dive N’ Surf. Shortly after that we went to Catalina, and that’s when I knew I had to start to train and be active.”
When they met, Russ was a student at California State University Long Beach (CSULB) and was friends with Bill Meistrell and Bob Meistrell, who owned Dive N’ Surf—a Redondo Beach marine and dive shop still at its original location on North Broadway. Russ met the brothers a few years earlier during a visit to the store to get his boat’s outboard motor fixed.
Bill talked Russ, along with his brother and cousin, into taking diving lessons. They became fast friends, and the brothers promised Russ that when he became an accountant, they would give him their accounting work.
Seeking a way to combat California’s cold water, in 1953 the Meistrell brothers discovered an insulating material used in the back of refrigerators. With this neoprene, they fashioned the first practical wet suits. Their new innovation led to the creation of Body Glove.
After finishing Army service in 1964, Russ went to work for the Long Beach accounting firm Windes & McClaughry, where he would later become managing partner. Two years after joining the firm, he became became a CPA and began doing work for Dive N’ Surf and Body Glove.
In 1990, the Meistrells made Russ an “offer he couldn’t refuse”—to become the full-time president of Body Glove. “I became the only non-family shareholder,” Russ says. “At 72, I have no exit strategy. I’ve been very lucky.”
Although the Lessers keep it real, often lamenting the “yuppification” of the once-quaint beach town they call home, this dynamic duo is no less than a beach cities power couple. They have successfully managed to parlay their passion for healthy, outdoor living into extensive civic, philanthropic and professional careers.
“It’s so important to really look within yourself to discover your true purpose in life—whether it’s a job or volunteering,” Charlotte says. “You’re happiest when you have a purpose.”
Charlotte was born in the other Manhattan (New York). With an early passion for medicine and health, she intended to follow her pediatrician father’s footsteps and started as a pre-med student at Skidmore College in New York.
However, after transferring to UCSB and meeting Russ, she “decided to become pre-wife” and earned her bachelor’s degree in analytical biology. She became a licensed medical technologist but found she could better fulfill her passion serving her community and working to improve its health and safety.
In 1980, she spearheaded the formation of the Manhattan Beach Neighborhood Watch program. This led to her nomination as the Manhattan Beach Lion’s Club citizen of the year. She still serves as the program’s chair.
From 1993 to 2003, she served as director of health education and promotion services for the Beach Cities Health District. There she introduced a variety of health education campaigns, with an emphasis on women’s health.
Her work in crime prevention and health education led to her selection in 1999 as one of five women of the year, awarded by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. In 2000, Los Angeles supervisor Don Knabe appointed Charlotte to the Los Angeles Commission for Women, where she has served for 13 years, including two years as president.
In 2005, she was appointed to the policy board for the Office of Women’s Health. Her community involvement also included serving as president of the Junior League of Long Beach, chairing the opening of the Manhattan Beach Teen Center and the South Bay Coalition for Alcohol and Drug Free Youth, and serving on the El Camino College Foundation Board.
Keeping pace with Charlotte, Russ’ civic contributions include co-founding the Manhattan Beach 10K Run 35 years ago. The couple has since participated in every race. Running is a part of Russ’ daily routine. This past June, his running group presented him a plaque marking completion of 50,000 miles.
“Most people I talk to say they don’t know what’s dumber—running 50,000 miles or keeping track of it,” he says.
Russ’ past and present service includes more than a dozen community boards, including Manhattan Beach Little League, the Small Craft Advisory Commission for LA County, Torrance-South Bay YMCA, Manhattan Beach Education Foundation Advisory Board and Reef Check, an oceanic environmental organization. Russ also served on the Manhattan Beach Chamber of Commerce board of directors for seven years, including a term as president. He was elected to two terms on the Manhattan Beach City Council from 1978 to 1986, during which he served as mayor in 1980 and 1984.
His efforts earned him recognition as “distinguished alumni” of Mira Costa High School and one of El Camino College’s top 50 graduates during the school’s 50th anniversary celebration. As a distinguished alumnus from CSULB, he was invited this past May to give the commencement address to business school students. He concluded by telling graduates, “The most satisfaction in life comes from giving, not getting.”
Together the Lessers were selected in 1994 as citizens of the year by the Chamber of Commerce in Manhattan Beach and in 1993 as South Bay citizens of the year by the Wellness Community. The couple is also active at their church, St. Cross Episcopal Church in Hermosa Beach, including being members of the board. Amid these accomplishments, the Lessers managed to raise a family of three children, which led Charlotte to serve in various PTA leadership roles for nearly 18 years.
“Our kids used to say, ‘Mom is a PTA and dad is a CPA,’” Charlotte says.
Now grown up, son Tim is a urologist at Torrance Memorial Medical Center. Daughter, Valerie, is a horse trainer, and son Greg is an assistant U.S. attorney.
Today the empty nesters happily dote on their six grandchildren. However, a year ago, a frightening incident highlighted the importance of having top-quality health care close to home. Just three days shy of her 16th birthday, granddaughter Allegra received a jaw-crushing kick in the mouth by her horse in Palos Verdes.
“She spent four days in the ICU, and the care was truly wonderful. They did a fabulous job of rebuilding her jaw,” said Charlotte. “It really made us feel that Torrance Memorial was a great place to be.”
Their experience prompted them to join the Ambassadors Program, a support group of the
Torrance Memorial Health Care Foundation and its only annual giving program. The Lessers are now encouraging others to join them as they help support construction of the medical center’s new 400,000 square-foot Main Tower, scheduled to be completed in November 2014.
“It’s going to be incredible and progressive,” says Russ. “We’re working to educate the local residents—even those from the Westside—that Torrance Memorial is as good or better than any hospital anywhere if you need care that’s on the cutting edge. Hopefully you won’t need it, but when you do, it’s there.”
Another health-related initiative the Lessers actively support is the beach cities’ Blue Zones Project, a recent movement to help community members generate habits to live longer, happier lives. Body Glove was the first business to sign up. The program has since grown to more than 160 South Bay businesses.
During a stroll down the hall at Body Glove headquarters, Charlotte points to a plate of nuts and fresh fruit on the kitchen counter for employees to snack on. It’s an example of how the company is working to promote a more plant-based diet—one of Blue Zone’s founding Power 9 Principles.
“Creating healthier employees is good for them (the employees), and also good for the business,” Russ says.
What’s next for the Lessers? In line with the Blue Zones’ #1 principle, “Move Naturally,” they are currently training for a hike into the Grand Canyon. They tackled climbing Mount Whitney with friends in 2002.
Meanwhile Russ, who along with sons Tim and Greg sings, plays and writes music in the band Thin Ice (named, according to Russ, “because when we’re playing, that’s what we feel we’re on”), will continue to perform their breezy tunes, such as “Beach Trilogy and Other Songs” and “Surf City Ain’t No City,” at gigs around the South Bay.
For the Lessers, sometimes having a purpose simply means having a good time.