Skip Yowell’s passing last week triggered a stream of eulogies crediting the JanSport co-founder as one of the most enduring and endearing figures in the industry.
Memorial and celebration services for the life of Yowell were announced over the weekend:
–Thursday, October 22, 2015, at Prairie Junction in Morland, Kansas, from 2-4 p.m.
–Tuesday, November 3, 2015, at Left Hand Brewing Company, 1265 Boston Avenue, Longmont, Colorado, at 6:30 p.m.
–Thursday, November 12, 2015, at the Kansas Wetlands Education Center, Cheyenne Bottoms, Great Bend, Kansas, from 5-7 p.m.
Praise streamed in from everyone from VF Corp. CEO Eric Wiseman to Yowell’s former secretary Cindy Kreaber. Yowell, many said, did as much if not more to shape the industry’s core values – passion for the outdoors, innovation, collaboration, giving back and having fun – than any other single individual.
Yowell, 69, passed away at his home in St. Peter, Kansas, after succumbing to an illness first diagnosed in 2010 when he announced he would retire 48 years after co-founding JanSport.
“Skip was truly one of those people who deserves a title of more than founder of an iconic brand, he was an ambassador of integrity to the entire outdoor industry,” said Kevin Myette, director of North America for Bluesign Technologies Ag, who began calling on Yowell in the early 1990s as a quality control specialist at Recreational Equipment Inc. “I think it’s safe to assume that Skip was a huge influence on the spirit of the industry and helped us all be more open, warm, collaborative and fun.”
In addition to being remembered for his brilliant marketing and solid mountaineering skills, Yowell was among a handful of entrepreneurs who peeled away from the SIA Snow Show to create what is now the Outdoor Industry Association and the Outdoor Retailer trade show. He introduced thousands of industry colleagues to mountaineering through JanSport’s annual Mt. Rainer climb and through his support of Big City Mountaineers, which takes underserved urban kids on outdoor adventures to help them build their self-confidence. He is fondly remembered by many for helping organize the “Shake and Bake” parities at Outdoor Retailer. He may also be one of the few people in the industry to merit their own bobble head doll, according to “The Skip Yowell Story,” a 15-minute documentary film JanSport released in 2010.
Outpours of adoration and respect were unprecedented. “He was one of the people I call my unintentional mentors,” said Darren Bush, owner of Rutabaga’s Paddlesports of Madison, WI. “He never gave me advice and wouldn’t even if I asked him, but his example was one of palpable leadership. The authentic word gets thrown around a lot; Skip was 100-percent authentic and humble about it.”
Yowell co-founded JanSport in 1967 above his uncle’s transmission shop with his cousin and fellow long-hair Murray Pletz and Murray’s wife Janice “Jan” Lewis, who sewed the company’s first backpacks and for whom the company is named. The company became known for its avant-garde marketing and production innovations, including a dome tent that performed so well in a severe wind storm during Lou Whitaker’s 1982 expedition to Everest that dome tents have since become standard issues for such extreme expeditions.
One of Yowell’s biggest contribution to the company, however, was his ability to see bigger opportunities beyond the backcountry that had spawned the brand.
“What was unique, was Skip’s ability and vision to let the brand be bigger than just the trail or the mountain,” said JanSport President Steve Munn. “Skip was friends with just about everyone … including the manager of the University of Washington bookstore. So in 1969, two years after starting the company, he delivered a few JanSport bags to the UW bookstore thinking students might use them to carry their things around campus. The bags sold out over the weekend. Today, you can find JanSport backpacks prominent on any campus you visit around the world.”
JanSport was acquired by K2 Corp. in the early 1970s. By the time VF Corp. acquired it in 1986, JanSport already had a global following. Yowell was the only founder to stay on with brand and continued to serve part time as vice president of global public relations until January 2015.
“Living in Kansas the past two-to-three years, having moved from Pleasanton, CA, did not slow him down nor change his relationship with JanSport,” said Ann Daw, vice president of marketing for JanSport. “And he was not retired, nor do I think he was capable of retiring when he enjoyed his work so much.”
One place Yowell’s absence will be most felt will be on JanSport’s annual Mt. Rainer climb.
At the 43rd edition of the event this past June, two groups of eight—including JanSport employees, sales representatives, retailers, distributors, media and industry trade groups—set out on the ascent. Half reached the summit but all gathered for a celebration and a hearty dinner afterwards to give JanSport’s product teams feedback on the prototype packs they used on the climb. In recent years, Yowell has attended the dinner to address the group, but his health prevented him from making the trip this summer. To this day, JanSport holds the record for hosting the longest consecutive group climb on Mt. Rainier.
“I am forever grateful to Skip for the opportunity he gave me to climb Rainier on the JanSport climb,” recalled OIA Executive Director Amy Roberts. “He was there with us before and after our trip and eager to hear us retell an adventure he had probably heard many times before. That was the thing about Skip, he probably had more travels and adventures under his belt than most anyone else, but he always made you feel like your story was important.”
Remembering Yowell Through Industry Friends
“What was unique was Skip’s ability and vision to let the brand be bigger than just the trail or the mountain. Skip was friends with just about everyone . . . including the manager of the University of Washington bookstore. So in 1969, two years after starting the company, he delivered a few JanSport bags to the UW bookstore thinking students might use them to carry their things around campus. The bags sold out over the weekend. Today, you can find JanSport backpacks prominent on any campus you visit around the world. Even with the major success on campus that scaled the business, Skip remained committed to the outdoors and the industry, while keeping the brand true to its outdoor heritage and rooted with on-mountain authenticity. Skip was and still is the soul of the JanSport brand. He was an inspiration to employees. Veterans admired his long-term commitment and passion for everything JanSport. Newcomers, 20-somethings, admired him for starting a company to avoid getting a real job. Skip treated people with respect, and he got their respect and admiration in return.” – Steve Munn, President, JanSport
“Skip is a legend who gave himself to the outdoor industry for most of his life, and he cared deeply for the people on the JanSport team. When I first joined JanSport in 1995, Skip took me under his wing to teach me about JanSport and the outdoor industry. I’ll never forget how thoughtful and caring he was during that time. The industry has lost a champion, but many of us lost a dear friend.” – Eric Wiseman, Chairman & CEO, VF Corp.
“Skip was the single person that taught me the deep soul we have as an industry. He shared the importance of our industry giving back, such as through our work with Big City Mountaineers. Skip joined me on my first ever sales call to REI. He taught me that we work in this industry because we love the people, the products … and more than anything, we love the outdoors. I remember having a cold Rainier beer with Skip after our Mt. Rainier climb 15-plus years ago … he looked at me and said “this is why we do what we do”—referencing the power personal passion has on professional business success.” – Todd Spaletto, President, The North Face
“Skip was the real deal. He was not someone who portrayed himself as anything other than what he was, and he was JanSport. He loved this brand and inspired so many of the young people. And he remembered every one of them. He had personal relationships with each person he came into contact with, and never forgot a name (which was amazing to me). He told me last year that he never wanted to retire. And I’m so glad he didn’t.” – Cindy Kraeber, Executive Assistant, JanSport
“Skip was such an inspiring man. Within a month of starting work at JanSport, I went skydiving off a plane and went on the biggest hike of my life. He loved the outdoors and seeing all of the new product we were making for consumers to use while exploring.” – Erin Olsen, Senior Product Manager, JanSport
“I started working for JanSport 13 years ago and remember the first day I met Skip. I thought he was the most interesting person I’ve ever met and his old office in Appleton was filled to the brink with mementos of all of his adventures over the years. He was the best story teller and even though I saw his slide show many times over the years, I never missed an opportunity to see it again.” – Tina Earps-Wickham, Product Director, Collegiate Division, JanSport
“Skip was an innovator who co-founded Jansport, OIA and the Outdoor Foundation. He was there at the very first Outdoor Retailer and lifted up Big City Mountaineers. He enabled hundreds of successful Mount Rainier summits and introduced thousands of young people to the outdoors. But most of all, he was our “minister of culture.” He turned trade show parties, non-profit fundraisers and entertaining friends into a pure art form. My all-time favorite Skip Yowell story is about the time he was peddling goods in NYC during the late 1970’s. Skip and some of the Jansport team decided to party at Studio 54 at the height of its enormous popularity. Naturally, the line at the club was massive so the owners were very selectively letting in only the beautiful people and celebrities like Andy Warhol and Bianca Jagger. Dressed in well-worn Patagonia baggie shorts, a Jansport t-shirt and flip flops, our long-haired and beloved Skip was pulled out of the large crowd by the bouncers. Leaving his disappointed compadres behind, he was then ushered VIP-style into a glorious and memorable night. (A gift he tried to recreate for all of us at the Jansport Shake and Bake at OR many times over.) There is a huge void in the outdoor industry because Skip Yowell decided to hold court in distant dimensions. That was his nature. He was always searching for new friends and fresh experiences. Without question, Skip left us way too soon but don’t be sad. Like before, he was just plucked out of the crowd because he was so damn special. – Frank Hugelmeyer, Executive Director, Recreational Vehicle Industry Association
“There are getting to be fewer and fewer of us old-timers still around to tell stories of the good old days. While Skip was taken before his time, he was certainly an old-timer in this industry. He was an “ideas” man that was able to execute on many of those innovations. He broke trail for many of us for a lot of miles. Thank you for that Skip. He was one of the good guys. The only thing that I hold against Skip is that he stole the best personal assistant I ever had when he married Winnie and took her away. Can’t really hold that against him though.” – Lewis M. Mull, BackWoods founder
“There was no line between ‘what we did’ and ‘who we were.’ Skip was all about JanSport, while I was all about Salomon/TaylorMade, Vuarnet, Ride, and others. But what I cherish most now, are the ‘after the rush’ years, when Skip and I coincidentally ended up with homes in Pleasanton, CA, just a few blocks apart. It was a time where we could reflect on where we’d been, and accomplished, with more frequent back-yard talks of ‘giving back’ a bit. Yes, we’d built companies, and are proud the brands still exist and prosper. Yet Skip changed attitudes, changed lives. One example: We talked of planting trees. A good thing to do—dirt under your fingernails—and something we both enjoyed. Yet more interesting, and impactful, was the notion of using our business skills to leverage a big company to “plant trees.” Skip profoundly knew how to leverage his skills to change the earth. He knew how to make VF feel very, very good about what they were doing. With never ever a raised voice, Skip walked the talk.” – Bob Hall, CEO, Nudown
“From my experience, Skip has been the most consistent and giving individual in the industry. He was on the ORCA/OIA board with me for five years and then we worked together on the Big City Mountaineers board. Skip was at every event, board meeting, and was especially effective in his work helping the lobbying efforts at OIA attending every Capital Summit. He was a shining example of what the industry embodied in terms of work ethic, giving, inspiration, and freely gave of his time to anyone that needed it.” -Mike Wallenfels, Vice President Worldwide Sales, Hydro Flask
“From even before I joined the outdoor industry in the mid 70s, in so many ways and to so many of us, Skip was the face of the industry. To me he continued to be that face and probably always will be. His ability to create, inspire all ages to go to the mountains, have fun, build genuine relationships and actively help carry out his vision for a better industry will all be lasting legacies. If I had to point to one accomplishment that stands out above the rest, it would be him and Lou Whittaker teaming up to create the JanSport Mt. Rainier Climb. That annual pinnacle event has enriched many hundreds of lives and has helped give a meaningful degree of authenticity to the outdoor industry.” – John D. Mead, President, Adventure 16
“His name said it all and matched his zest for adventure and fun. Such an amazing man and one of the best outdoor industry ambassadors…ever. Humble, accessible, relatable. He was a mentor and helped show me how to take passion for the outdoors and blend it into business and pleasure. We suffered together on climbs, Rainier, Everest, Kilimanjaro and then compensated for the suffering by coming off the mountains and celebrating, really celebrating.” -Peter Whittaker, Owner/Guide, RMI
“Skip probably had more travels and adventures under his belt than most anyone else, but he always made you feel like your story was important.” -Amy Roberts, Executive Director, Outdoor Industry Association
“In many ways, the Outdoor Foundation’s mission to connect the next generation with the outdoors can be traced to Skip’s passion for getting youth outside. As a founding board member, he helped shape the focus and direction of the organization and, more importantly, was the inspirational leader that we all looked to for guidance. Part of his legacy lives in the tens of thousands of young people who the Foundation and our partners have introduced to the wonders of the great outdoors.” – Chris Fanning, Executive Director, Outdoor Foundation
“If you did not have the good fortune of knowing Skip, it’s OK because he would have called you a friend anyway. I loved our chats about his garden and all the extra curriculum activities he was involved in whether it was a locally youth based or helping a community around the world.” – Debbie Motz, Executive Director, Eastern Outdoor Reps Association
“I met Skip early in the role in one meeting, exchanged handshakes and names, got to the task and quickly realized how supportive, cooperative and generally helpful this person was. I later remarked to the REI buyer that this person should be commended to their superiors. The buyer quickly corrected me. This WAS the superior. I had no idea. I was to learn over the years that this was very much the nature of Skip… he was not motivated by rank or ego, he was driven by solving problems in a collaborative way. He was also about sharing and giving of his knowledge, but never in a condescending way. You learned by being in his presence. – Kevin Myette, Director of North America for Bluesign Technologies Ag
“I knew Skip through my dad first when I was teenager. A great friend to my dad and a “cool, outdoor guy” — my teenage words! I got to know him again when I entered the industry in 2003 and saw that he was indeed, and still, the “cool, outdoor guy”, but I understood more about who he was as a person and how important he was to the industry. I was fortunate over these last 12 years to spend some time with Skip and to hear, see and feel his tremendous energy, positive attitude, kind spirit, zest for life and love of our industry.” – Jennifer Mull, CEO, Backwoods, Chairman, Outdoor Industry Association
“Skip was always an outgoing bubbly kind of guy that you just wanted to be around. His JanSport ads were simply brilliant. The one that comes to mind is Skip in a tuxedo standing on top of Mt. Rainier with a silver tray and wine glasses … what class!” – Norman E. Pitt, Third Rail Marketing, Monroe, Ga.
“Skip was a true friend indeed. With the start of the Outsiders Ball we communicated often and shared many stories and good times. He visited Knoxville a few years ago and again and we struck up a friendship and communicated regularly over the last two years. A few months ago I received a hand written letter from Skip. Even in is time of pain he took the time to communicate. The outdoor industry is a better place because of Skip.” – Ed McAlister, Owner, River Sports Outfitters