James Van Doren and his older brother Paul had only sample sneakers to offer when they opened their first store, in Anaheim, in 1966. They took a dozen orders in the morning and delivered custom canvas deck shoes, made in their adjacent factory, in the afternoon.
Operating as the Van Doren Rubber Co., the brothers and two other co-founders planned to succeed by cutting out the middleman and selling their distinctive thick rubber-soled shoes directly to the public.
By the early 1970s, the company owed some of its success to Southern California’s burgeoning skateboard culture. The shoes were especially valued for the sticky rubber soles that helped skaters grip their boards — an innovation devised by Van Doren.
From the start, the casual shoes were known by a single name: Vans.
James Van Doren, who ran the company from 1976 to 1984, died Oct. 12 at his home in Fullerton after a long illness, said his wife, Char. He was 72.
“He was a mechanic, a chemist, the brains behind the early shoe,” said his nephew, Steve Van Doren, one of several family members who still work for the company. “In his garage, he made all the molds for the very first soles,” including the trademark waffle design.
With James at the helm, Vans built up its manufacturing operation, doubled its workforce and greatly expanded its product line far beyond the initial deck shoes into the competitive athletic shoe market. To test running shoes, he became a serious runner and raced in half-marathons.
The brand gained national recognition when Sean Penn donned a pair of checkerboard slip-on Vans to play the spaced-out Spicoli in the 1982 film “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.”
“He guided Vans through the checkerboard era, and we were flying,” said Steve Van Doren, son of company co-founder Paul. “We were the hottest thing going.”
While trying to absorb expansion costs, Vans was squeezed by dwindling sales in the early 1980s as the “Ridgemont High” fad faded and cheaper foreign imitations hit the market.
“We had kind of gotten away from our sweet spot and off track into athletic shoes that were expensive to make in America,” Steve said, when the competition made them overseas.
Heavy losses sent the company into bankruptcy, which forced a court-ordered management shake-up. In 1984, James left Vans and returned control to Paul, who came out of semi-retirement to run the firm, then based in Orange. Four years later, an investment banking company bought Vans, which has been sold several times since.
Only 45 years old when he was ousted, Van Doren became a general contractor who often worked for free for people who couldn’t afford to pay, said James Van Doren Jr., one of his three sons.
Born March 20, 1939, in Weymouth, Mass., the senior James was one of five children of Johnson and Rena Van Doren. His father was an inventor and his mother a seamstress.
James spent two years at Northeastern University in Boston and a decade with the Randolph Rubber Manufacturing Co. in Massachusetts, working his way up to factory manager.
The two Van Doren brothers moved west in 1964 to run a Randolph factory in Garden Grove and left the company the next year to start their own firm.
“He was a very driven man, a hard worker, very giving, very funny,” his son James said. “He could control a room with his stories.”
In addition to Char, his wife of 15 years, Van Doren is survived by his sons from a previous marriage, James, Mark and Eric; brothers Paul and Robert; sister Bernice; and five grandchildren.
A memorial Mass will be held at 10 a.m. Friday at St. Juliana Falconieri Church, 1316 N. Acacia Ave., Fullerton.