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Obituaries

Skip Yowell dies at 69; co-founder of JanSport backpack company

Skip Yowell
JanSport co-founder Skip Yowell filled his office with souvenirs from his expeditions. The Kansas native, an avid mountaineer, has died at the age of 69.
(Teri Harris / The Seattle Times)

Skip Yowell, a Kansas boy and avowed hippie who made it to Mt. Everest, co-founded the JanSport company and sold backpacks by the millions, has died. He was 69.

Yowell had lung cancer, his sister Diana Crouch said in an interview Monday. He died Wednesday at his home in St. Peter, Kan.

In 1967, he left college in Kansas and joined his cousin Murray Pletz for a starry-eyed venture in Seattle.

Pletz had won a design competition with his idea for a flexible aluminum backpack frame. Starting a tiny operation over his father’s transmission shop, he promised his girlfriend, Jan Lewis, that he would name the new company for her if she would sew the packs, and, incidentally, marry him. Cousin Skip would take care of sales.

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With that, JanSport was born.

“Skip was and still is the soul of the JanSport brand,” Steve Munn, the company’s president, said in a statement. “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.”

Yowell retired in 2010 as JanSport’s vice president of global public relations. However, he continued making appearances for the company until January. Pletz left in 1982 and Lewis retired in 2005.

Jan Lewis, Skip Yowell
Jan Lewis, left, with Skip Yowell, who co-founded with cousin Murray Pletz what became the nation's largest maker of backpacks, JanSport. Lewis was Pletz's girlfriend, and he named the company after her.
(JanSport)

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Though the company outfits hikers with backpacks and tents, its most visible contribution has been on campuses.

In 1972, a buyer for the University of Washington bookstore gave Yowell a transformative tip: Students were starting to use JanSport daypacks for hauling books from class to class. JanSport, the buyer suggested, might want to reinforce the packs for items heavier than a sandwich and a compass.

“Thankfully, I didn’t ignore the tug inside of my gut that confirmed Ed might just be on to something,” Yowell wrote in his 2007 book, “The Hippie Guide to Climbing the Corporate Ladder and Other Mountains.”

The company bolstered the packs with vinyl, then leather. Soon, students throughout the Northwest, then the U.S., were dumping books, water bottles, gym clothes, fruit, CD players and computers into JanSport packs.

“Today our daypacks are used worldwide,” Yowell wrote. “You can be in the outback of Bhutan, India or the Himalayas, and you’ll find kids going to school carrying a daypack with their books and possessions in it.”

Born July 5, 1946, in Hays, Kan., Yowell was the son of Harold, an oil field worker, and Marjorie, a mother of four. He planned to become a photographer after his studies at Wichita State and Fort Hays State University, but he changed direction after the fateful call from his cousin Murray.

In its first years, JanSport was a family affair. Yowell’s Aunt Mabel kept the books. Her husband, his Uncle Norm, fabricated the aluminum tubes in his transmission shop. Sometimes his father came from Kansas to help.

Yowell himself came up with a barrage of wild marketing ideas stressing JanSports’ western roots and its young owners’ countercultural leanings. In some of the ads, they struck tongue-in-cheek poses as miners or ‘49ers; later, in a 1982 shot that would have gone viral if it were possible at the time, Yowell, with his flowing blond hair and Fu Manchu mustache, puckered up next to a kissing llama named Cisco.

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In his book, he wrote of driving to San Francisco with Pletz in 1970 to pitch distributors on JanSport packs. For some reason, the two bought suits for the occasion — and were so uncomfortable that they blew at least one sale.

“As we moved through the store, the employees started giving us these shocked looks as if we belonged in a freak show at the circus,” he wrote. “I overheard one person say, ‘What, those are the JanSport guys?’”

For Yowell, who said he seldom suited up after that, hiking shorts and headbands were a more natural fit.

Once a year, he took staffers, reporters, sporting goods buyers on a rigorous climb up Mt. Rainier. The tradition endured more than 40 years.

Yowell and Pletz frequently tested out their products on the trail. After their A-frame tent was virtually blown apart by freezing winds in 1970, they designed what Yowell later described as the first marketable dome tent. Unfortunately, they never patented it.

“We were working around the clock to meet demand, as well as making time to further develop and expand our daypack line — not to mention there were some cool concerts were didn’t want to miss,” he wrote.

In a short while, competitors came up with their own dome tents and a JanSport patent was impossible. Yowell called the oversight “the biggest mistake of my life.”

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Yowell climbed mountains around the world and was on the support team for a 1984 ascent of Everest. In 1989, he took part in an expedition to Kanchenjunga, a peak in Nepal.

He also was active in outdoor-oriented philanthropies, including Big City Mountaineers, a group that introduces inner-city teens to the wilderness.

In addition to his sister Diana Crouch, Yowell’s survivors include his wife, Winnie Kingsbury; daughter Quinn Yowell; brother Lindsey Yowell; stepdaughter Wesley Kingsbury; stepson Hunt Kingsbury; and five grandchildren.

steve.chawkins@latimes.com


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