They came back to their hometown on Saturday afternoon to remember the good days when Jonathan "Johnny" Coontz was just another blond-haired Newport kid who had throngs of loyal friends, loved the ocean and surfed like a pro.
Those were the care-free days near the sea, they said, before Coontz's life turned for the worse, before he succumbed to forces that left him — once a universally renowned, "top 5" of Newport surfer — among the Orange County homeless.
Coontz, a 58-year-old Newport Harbor High alumnus, died Dec. 28 at a Santa Ana hospital after being hit by a cyclist near where the Santa Ana River trail meets Atlanta Avenue in Huntington Beach. His family told the Daily Pilot that details of the incident remain unclear to them, and the county coroner hasn't finished its investigation that may indicate if Coontz, who had several convictions for drinking in public, had alcohol in his system when he died.
Friends and Coontz's three sisters gathered at the Newport Harbor home of Gary Robertson on Saturday to reminisce about what made their friend special and how he seemed to "march to a different drummer."
Robertson, who lives in Beacon Bay, grew up just four doors down from the Coontz family in the Westcliff area of Newport. He expressed excitement to talk with old friends, many of whom hadn't seen each other in decades, and gather in memory of Coontz.
"They just all were inspired by what a good surfer he was and what a great guy he was," Robertson said. "All these memories are coming out. These were the best surfers in Newport Beach in the '70s."
Those were the "old Newport" days, Robertson said, when it was "a small beach town and everybody knew everybody." He remembers days on the beach with Coontz, how he got him into all the best high school parties, and there was once an epic swell off 56th Street with 15-footers.
"We all were normal teenagers," he said. "Nobody knew who was gonna be a zillionaire. Nobody knew who was gonna live on the bayfront. Nobody knew any of that stuff. Everybody's taken their different directions, but all of a sudden, we're all together. And we're all the same."
"Coontz just had this natural talent," Robertson added. "He was a great personality and he was so full of life … but he just went into a hole."
Janet Stoneman, one of Coontz's sisters, made a book that contained photographs of her young brother growing up. On Saturday, they were focusing on fond memories when he had "a wonderful spirit."
But, she said, "it was hard to relate to him as he changed. We knew him through the good years."
Denise Ogle, another of Coontz's sisters, said her younger brother always did his own thing. Sometimes, though, she got a little jealous of that.
"I was very disciplined and had to be doing my homework. And he got to go surfing!" Ogle said with a laugh.
She was pleased to see so many come to his memorial. It showed how much he meant to people, she said.
"He was a cool guy," Ogle said. "That part of him I didn't know, because I didn't know the impact he had on his friends. For me, it's neat to know how much he meant to his friends."
Jeff Harris recalled Coontz's sheer athleticism.
"He just ripped. He was so good," Harris said. "It's just tragic the way his life evolved ... but what I remember about Johnny is a magnificently coordinated, gifted athlete."