East Beach was Bob Van Wagner’s home away home.
He was a fixture around the volleyball courts for nearly seven decades. In his 80s, he was still hanging out near the courts, greeting local players with a bone-crunching handshake, shooting the breeze and sharing photos he snapped of the game’s great players, going back to the early 1960s.
There are legends such as Gene Selznick, Manny Saenz, Bernie Holtzman, Ron Von Hagen and Ron Lang, among others. He shot Santa Barbara greats Henry Bergmann, Karch Kiraly, John Hanley and Todd Rogers.
If there happened to be a highly competitive game that caught his eye, he’d yell out his customary catchphrases, “It’s point time!” or, “We got winners.”
East Beach won’t be the same without him.
Van Wagner died Jan. 6 at age 93.
He was passionate about volleyball. He played the game, officiated, ran tournaments and took photos.
“As long as I can remember, when I started playing beach volleyball in 1966, he was always there at the end of games, the end of tournaments, and he’d get people together to take their pictures to commemorate the events,” said Jon Lee, a retired volleyball coach and teacher at San Marcos High. “He was an institution. When I was working at Volleyball Magazine as an editor, he resourced us some historic photos that were just fantastic and really kept the sport alive. He was a valuable resource all these decades.”
Bob Van Wagner officiates a volleyball match featuring basketball great Wilt Chamberlain and his team, the Big Dippers. (Courtesy photo)
“Gods to Ghosts,” a Facebook page dedicated to the history of beach volleyball, paid homage to Van Wagner: “RIP Bob ‘Crank’ Van Wagner. Thank you for your countless photos that serve as a window into the past and remind us all how amazing the sport, players, and characters were during that golden era of the sport!”
Van Wagner served as the longtime tournament director of Santa Barbara’s summertime Semana Nautica beach volleyball open tournament. He also was an accredited USA Volleyball Association official. He called some matches that featured basketball great Wilt Chamberlain and his team known as the Big Dippers.
Lee recalled playing on a local six-man team against Chamberlain’s four-man Big Dippers at the San Marcos High gym, and Van Wagner was the referee.
In 2019, Van Wagner was inducted into the California Beach Volleyball Hall of Fame. The honor was a crowning achievement for his lifelong passion to the game.
“He helped capture and preserve pivotal early moments from the sport,” the Hall of Fame said during his induction.
“He was always there taking pictures, at the finals of Master’s tournaments, double As and single As. He was always there to take the people’s photos,” said Lee, who called Van Wagner “one of my good friends through the decades.”
“He was a character,” he said. “Like most people in the volleyball community, he was a little off center. He liked the culture of beach volleyball, as so did I. It helped define him.”
In 2008, Kiraly, a three-time Olympic gold medalist, the all-time winningest beach volleyball player and the current U.S. Women’s Indoor National Team coach, paid tribute to Van Wagner during the U.S. Open of Beach Volleyball at East Beach, presenting him with a lifetime achievement award.
Van Wagner was Southern California native, born in Santa Monica.
A proud World War II veteran, he served in the U.S. Navy and was aboard the aircraft carrier USS Boxer in the Western Pacific. After his honorable discharge in 1946, he attended Santa Monica City College and studied to become an electrician.
He moved to Santa Barbara in 1955 and met his wife, Barbara. They have two children, daughter Ginger and son Barry.
Van Wagner worked for nearly 30 years at the Point Mugu Pacific Missile Test Center.
Before he passed, Van Wagner still managed to get down to his beloved East Beach.
“He’d go down to the water with an attendant and walk out to his knees,” Lee said. “In his time, he had a lot of days in the sunshine, a lot of memorable days in the sunshine.”
Van Wagner is survived by his wife, Barbara, children Ginger and Barry (wife Emily), a half-brother Gary (Jan) in Newark, Texas, and two half-sisters, Anita and Marilyn (husband Ken) in Homedale, Idaho, and Vista, Ca., respectively.