Legends of Diving Articles


Neal Earl Hess
Founder NAUI; One of the world’s leading experts on SCUBA dive training

by Roger Hess

Neal Hess

Neal Earl Hess was born in Salt Lake City, Utah, November 3, 1926, the first son of Delbert Earl and Helen Sampson Hess. A second son, Roger E. Hess was born 1929 in Ogden, Utah. The Hess family moved to Los Angeles, California in 1933 where a third son, John P. Hess was born in 1936. It was the time of the Great Depression, and Earl had come to Los Angeles looking for work.

Neal was born with the gift of learning, which allowed him to excel in his school years, graduating as an honor student from George Washington High School in 1944. World War II was in full swing and all branches of the service were competing for the best and brightest. Neal was interested in electronics and chose the United States Army Signal Corps. From age 10 on he had built a radio receiver and other devices from plans he found in Popular Science Magazine.

The Army sent Neal to basic training and then to Stanford University where he completed his Signal Corps training. He was then transferred to Officer Candidate School and commissioned a Second Lieutenant. Neal then went to the Philippines, learned to fly and returned home a First Lieutenant.

The war was over when he returned home and the Army placed him on reserve status. Neal decided to go on a mission for the Church of the Latter-day Saints and was sent to Germany where he did Church work for two years. Having completed his mission, Neal decided to tour Europe on a bicycle and stayed for six more months. Upon returning home, Neal went back to Stanford for his Electrical Engineering degree. Ranked in the top fifth of his class, he became a candidate for then member of Tau Beta Pi, the oldest honor society in the United States.

Neal enjoyed nothing better than a good prank, whether he was the perpetrator or the target. The one I will always remember happened when he was at Stanford where he had access to some Signal Corps training audios. These were war sounds, including artillery, mortars, machine gun fire, hand grenades, rifle fire, small arms and last, but not least, aircraft screeching out of the sky, pulling up then bombs going off. Strategically placing speakers around the Stanford campus, Neal set his alarm for 2am, got up and turned on the speakers. This story was told to me by one of his Stanford classmates.

After graduation from Stanford, Neal went to work for the aircraft/aerospace industry, taking a pledge of secrecy and therefore unable to talk of his accomplishments. There can be no question they were many, as he was in line for a top management position once he completed a Business Administration course. One thing he could talk about was being part of the engineering team that installed and tested the new inertial guidance system on the world’s first nuclear submarine. Developed for the Navaho cruise missile project and modified for the USS Nautilus, this system allowed the Nautilus to sail under the ice from the Pacific to the Atlantic and opened the elusive Northwest Passage.

In 1953, Neal and I became interested in SCUBA diving. In looking for an entry method, we discovered there was no organized instruction in southern California. Neal learned that a couple guys, Bill and Sam, were operating a boat for diving called the Sea Duce and he booked us reservations. The boat supplied the SCUBA gear and you brought your own mask, fins, towel, sweatshirt (no wet suits yet), and lunch.

A short instruction was given by Sam who was from France and still mastering English. If you didn’t speak French, it left a lot to your own interpretation. After a slow start, we made our way over to and hand over hand down the anchor line to the bottom at 30 feet – it was beautiful.

We fell in love with diving and became regulars on the Sea Duce, talking with other divers and pulling them out of the water. Most of them said they’d really like diving if they knew more about it. With this in mind, Neal made arrangements with the Chase Hotel in Santa Monica to use their pool, and with the newly opened Dive N’ Surf for SCUBA gear. These classes were usually five to six people, mainly pool work, and it was amazing how well they did their next time out on the boat. Neal and I added lecture material as we began studying the Navy Diving manual and other diving related publications.

In 1955 we learned that Los Angeles County was developing an underwater instructor’s program and starting instructor classes. We joined 4UICC in 1955 and were awarded our instructor’s certification (Al Tillman was the instructor). We continued to hold classes at the Chase Hotel until 1957 when Neal decided to return to college for a degree in Business Administration. He
L-R Jerry O’Neall,
Neal Hess, Frank Scalli
(Boston Sea Rovers)
Boston Harbor ~1958
was accepted by Harvard and went East where he began checking out the diving scene on that coast. He found the Boston Sea Rovers and the indomitable Frank Scalli, who became a lifetime friend. Neal dove with that group then became their training director. I met Frank at a DEMA show some years after Neal’s death where Frank stated Neal was the reason Frank helped the YMCA instructor’s program get started, and became the first East Coast certified SCUBA instructor, and that Neal was unquestionably one of the world’s leading experts on SCUBA dive training.

Neal had been teaching diving for two years before the LA County program was established. Once it was, he and I took the course and continued to teach. More importantly, he wrote a column for Skin Diver Magazine called “The Instructor’s Corner.” Neal wrote about all facets of dive training and technique and was in contact with divers across the US and throughout the world, including Jacques Cousteau.

Neal finished his BA at Harvard and decided it was time to go ahead with a project he had discussed with Chuck Blakeslee and Jim Auxier, the owners of Skin Diver Magazine, and myself, to develop a national and international diver training course. Later to be called the National Association of Underwater Instructors (NAUI), Neal formulated the plan and began to implement it. He arranged for pools, hotels, classrooms and rental dive gear. He had talked to me before he went East, and I agreed to assist in the first class, but at the last minute was unable to get away due to a promotion and work related problems.

I suggested Al Tillman as an assistant, as we both knew him as a good, talented instructor. Neal asked me to call Tillman, which I did, and Al was surprised to learn there was a national program all set up and ready to go in two weeks with 72 students signed up. I gave Neal’s phone number to Al and told him to call if he was interested. Al did, got the time off and met with Neal in Houston. Neal assigned him an area of responsibility, and Al did an excellent job.

However, Neal had a time limitation, He’d been away from home for three years, had met a charming and beautiful lady named Ann Pettis from Omaha, Nebraska, taught her to dive and fallen head over heels in love.

In talking with Al Tillman, Neal mentioned that he would be leaving and they would need a director and Al stated he was interested in the position. Neal decided Al’s experience as the L.A. County Scuba department director would be put to good use managing the day-to-day affairs of NAUI. Neal never intended for NAUI to be his vocation, but knew it needed to be done, and he also felt an obligation to Chuck and Jim at Skin Diver Magazine to get it started.

Neal knew the weak link in NAUI was funding and it would never have the privilege of tax payer funding like LA County, or membership funding like the YMCA. NAUI would have to stand alone and derive its funding from the diving community. Neal’s background was best suited for this endeavor and he accepted the position of secretary/treasurer. Neal’s plan was to involve manufacturers, dive shops, divers, dive boats and any other facet of the dive community. Would it have worked? This is the very plan I used when the Catalina Hyperbaric Chamber came to me for help in funding (and yes, it worked, $128,811 the last year). Remember, this is in one area multiplied by several hundred in the US alone. Neal would not have been in favor of a nonprofit corporation as he considered it to too confining.

Neal had delayed his departure as long as he could, but finally had no choice, he had to return to work. He had gotten the manufacturers on board and passed on the rest of his financing plan to the board of directors and Tillman to consider or come up with another plan.

Neal married Ann Pettis and they bought a home in Pasadena. After Harvard, Neal changed course and decided to go into stocks and bonds. He did rather well and was able to leave endowments to both Stanford and Harvard. Neal told me the next four years were the happiest of his life. Ann had told Neal before their marriage that she had been a cancer patient, but was in remission and not likely to return. But it did, after four years, and it was only months from the time it was diagnosed until her death. Neal was inconsolable and must have decided life without Ann was not possible for him and he took his own life. In a conversation I had with Ann’s mother after Neal’s death, she ,“Roger, this has been extremely hard for us all, but I believe Neal paid the greatest tribute to Ann and their love and marriage,” as Neal’s brothers John and I agreed.

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L-R ~ 1956
Dr. Harold Edgerton, MIT,
Neal Hess,
Jacques Cousteau,
David Owen, Woods Hole

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