A West Palm Beach orthodontist and a graceful surfer, Dr. John “Chum” McCranels was known as a calming presence when tempers flared in the water.
Dr. John “Chum” McCranels, a longtime orthodontist in West Palm Beach and a prominent surfer who was inducted into the East Coast Surfing Hall of Fame, died Thursday. He was 81.
McCranels worked for more than a half-century as an orthodontist, and he tried his hand at all manner of activities, running marathons and free diving, sailing Hobie Cats and tackling 100-mile bike rides.
Dr. McCranels’ real passion was surfing. His first surfboard, the one he rode as a boy at Lake Worth Pier, was a board he built by hand after seeing a schematic in Popular Mechanics magazine. He dragged the plywood-and-cypress creation into the water, caught a wave and was hooked.
“It was just awesome. It was one of the greatest feelings of freedom in the world,” Dr. McCranels told the Palm Beach Post in 2012. “When you’re up on top of the water, it’s beyond words. It’s beyond understanding.”
Dr. McCranels went on to win a United States Amateur Surfing championship.
“Doc McCranels is one of the foremost surfers of his generation,” Paul Aho, curator of a Florida Atlantic University exhibit about the history of the sport in the state, told the Post in 2012. “He was fundamental in organizing the sport in Florida. … He was a leading figure.”
A graceful surfer, Dr. McCranels was known as a calming presence when tempers flared in the water.
Raphael Clemente, now the head of West Palm Beach’s Downtown Development Authority, remembers surfing at Lake Worth Pier when he was about 12. Clemente had angered an older, bigger surfer and was about to be throttled.
Dr. McCranels, in his 40s at the time, didn’t know the boy, but he intervened to save Clemente from a beating.
“Chum paddled over and said, ’He’s with me,’” Clemente recalled. “The guy looked at me like, ’OK, you’ll live another day, kid.’“
Dr. McCranels surfed regularly at Lake Worth Pier, but he avoided the territorialism, hazing and fistfights that were common there.
“Dad welcomed everybody,” son Scott McCranels said Friday. “I never saw him upset at anybody.“
Longtime friend Tom Warnke, executive director of the Surfing Florida Museum in West Palm Beach, recalled Dr. McCranels as “big-hearted.”
“He was one of the only surfers who invited others to actually share his waves,“ Warnke said.
Surfing was central to Dr. McCranels’ family life. Dr. McCranels and his wife, Joann, often loaded their four kids into a Volkswagen camper and drove to Cocoa Beach for a few nights. One time, the entire clan took a 30-day trek to Maine in the van, stopping at surf spots along the way, Scott said.
They’d park on the beach and sleep in the van. In the mornings Joann would make scrambled eggs on a Coleman camp stove.
Scott became a professional skateboarder and surfer before joining the family practice. A grandson, Nathan Behl, is an elite surfer.
“I tell people my grandfather was the first, the best, the king,” Behl told the Post in 2012.
After Scott joined the practice, he began marketing the business with “McCranels Orthodontics Surf Club” stickers that became ubiquitous on station wagons and minivans in central Palm Beach County. While branding with stickers and T-shirts never occurred to the elder Dr. McCranels, he encouraged his son to put his own stamp on the family business.
“He loved it,” Scott said.
True to form, Dr. McCranels requested that mourners skip the flowers and make donations to the Surfing Florida Museum, a nonprofit organization.
Dr. McCranels’ nicknames — Chum and Chummer — had nothing to do with fishing, Scott said. When Dr. McCranels was a boy, a family friend in Lake Worth referred to him as “my little chum,” and the name stuck.
“A lot of people have no idea his name is John,“ Scott said. ”If somebody called the house and asked for John, you knew it was a salesman.“
Dr. McCranels liked the name so much that he’d take his hats and shorts to the Army-Navy store on Belvedere Road to have “Chum” sewn on his gear.
In another quirk, McCranels would set personal goals every year or two. As part of that quest, he achieved a black belt in karate, earned a massage therapist’s license and learned jazz guitar.
For about a year, Dr. McCranels resolved to regularly ride a unicycle from his home on Singer Island to his office in West Palm Beach.
“People would say, ’I saw somebody unicycling across the Blue Heron Bridge,’” Scott said. “It was this legendary thing.”
The oldest of three boys, Dr. McCranels was born in 1938 to Virginia and John “Mac” McCranels.
Dr. McCranels was 12 when he met Joann at the public pool at the Lake Worth Casino.
Dr. McCranels graduated Lake Worth High School in 1956. He attended Palm Beach Junior College, as the school was known in the 1950s, and went to dental school at Loyola University in New Orleans. He served as lieutenant in the U.S. Navy Dental Corps.
Dr. McCranels is survived by wife Joann, son Scott and daughters Tammy McCranels Dugal, Barbara McCranels Behl and Michele McCranels Paolella.
He also is survived by six grandchildren, Daniel Behl, Jacqui Dugal, Nathan Behl, Spenser Dugal, Camilla McCranels, and Vladimir Paolella, and by great-granddaughter Daniela Behl.
A memorial service is scheduled for noon Monday at Family Church Downtown at 1101 S. Flagler Drive in West Palm Beach. Before his death, McCranels asked that mourners wear Hawaiian shirts to the funeral.
The family hasn’t decided on a day for a memorial paddle-out, but Scott said the event, a tradition for fallen surfers, is tentatively scheduled for Feb. 8 at Lake Worth Pier.