JanSport loses a founder

Steve’s breakdown: Stories like this are hard to report but it’s a good time to reconnect if you’ve ever worked with the JanSport brand.

 

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ALAMEDA, CA: Skip Murray Yowell, the counterculture adventurer who helped beget the now ubiquitous JanSport brand in a North Seattle workshop, died Wednesday after a long illness. He was 69 years old.

His sister, Diana Crouch, told The New York Times that Mr. Yowell died in St. Peter, Kan. She said he had battled lung cancer.

Mr. Yowell was born and grew up in rural Kansas, but his mother hailed from Seattle’s Green Lake neighborhood, and as a teenager he spent several summers there with his mother’s family. It was his cousin, Murray Pletz, who in 1967 asked the self-described hippieto move to Seattle and handle sales and marketing for a backpack Pletz had just invented.

“I did, and my life has been forever changed,” Mr. Yowell wrote in a 2007 book titled “The Hippie Guide to Climbing the Corporate Ladder and Other Mountains.”

For a while, Pletz; his wife, Jan (after whom the backpack was named); and Mr. Yowell operated out of a dusty workshop, rented from Pletz’s father, at the corner of 175th and Aurora.

Mr. Yowell wrote that early on, “We were labeled a lot of things — many were not exactly praiseworthy. My favorite wisecrack was that the three of us were ‘nothing more than a bunch of longhair hippies who spent too much time above the tree line.’ ”

The hirsute trio sold their backpacks at REI, and at one point Eddie Bauer ordered 300 packs, prompting the fledgling company to expand.

But their biggest break came when Ed Bergan, who handled purchasing for the University of Washington’s campus bookstore, suggested reinforcing the bottoms of the daypacks the company also manufactured. Mr. Yowell wrote that he took the suggestion to heart — first using vinyl, then leather.

That pack soon caught on with college and high-school students, and it ultimately became a global phenomenon. To publicize their wares, Mr. Yowell and his co-founders posed for catalog shots, sometimes dressed as gold miners or other 19th-century characters.

Yowell was also an avid outdoorsman. He accompanied the 1984 China-Everest expedition, the first American foray to climb the world’s highest mountain from the Tibet side.

Also tagging along on the expedition was Peter Jenkins, a travel writer who had struck up a lifelong friendship with Mr. Yowell after the latter provided him with a JanSport backpack that he used in walking from New Orleans to Oregon in the 1970s.

Mr. Yowell was “one of the least judgmental, one of the most encouraging people on the planet,” Jenkins said.

“He had a great life,” added Jenkins, who visited Mr. Yowell last summer in Kansas.

In addition to Mount Everest, Mr. Yowell traveled to Kenya, Bhutan and “other far-flung places,” according to a statement posted on his website.

JanSport was sold in the early 1970s and subsequently changed hands several times. (It’s been owned since 1986 by VF Corp., which also owns other well-known brands such as Timberland and The North Face.) But Mr. Yowell stayed with the company, now based in the Bay Area, and served as global vice president of public relations.

Ann Daw, a JanSport vice president of marketing who worked with Mr. Yowell for more than a decade, said he remained closely involved with the company until last January.

“Skip has been the very heartbeat of the enterprise, from the beginning,” she said, adding that he was “not remotely capable of retiring.”

The man who liked exploring Himalayan villages moved back to Kansas a few years ago, said Daw, but even from there he kept working and traveling to spread JanSport’s gospel.

“He loved the Plains, and he loved sunflowers and he loved big sky and stars,” said Daw, who says JanSport kept Yowell’s office in Alameda, Calif., intact even after he moved to Kansas.

“I think he just wanted to be home, just wanted to be on the Plains. He had a pool in his backyard, he grew tomatoes and made salsa. He sent us salsa a month ago,” Daw said.

He is survived by his wife, Winnie Kingsbury, and his daughter, Quinn Yowell.

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