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"Skip's account of the founding of JanSport wreaks of honesty, humor, and enough anecdotes to stir a memory in almost anyone who has spent time outside. His tale takes you from a small room above a transmission shop to a global enterprise and packs enough adventures to keep the fire stoked and the beer on ice for hours." -Larry Burke, Editor-in-Chief, Outside Magazine
"This amazing book chronicles the life of Skip Yowell, a man who climbed the corporate ladder not in a suit and tie, but in hiking boots and with a backpack. He did so in style, and had tons of fun doing it. He stayed true to himself, maintained friendships, traveled the world and most importantly, preserved his passion for his job.... We can all learn something from Skip, who started building backpacks from scratch and created a company that is now a giant in the industry. His honesty and passion for life are his priority, which all of his friends and business associates can attest to. The world would be a better place with more people like Skip Yowell. I am proud to have him as my friend and encourage you to get to know his story! You will be inspired." -Ed Viesturs, First American to climb all fourteen 8,000 meter peaks, Author of No Shortcuts to the Top
"I wish this enlightening book had been available 30 years ago. The inspiration I have derived from it now would have been welcomed then. Like a new band without a 'label' (either style or record company), with originality and dedication it shows how JanSport forged their own way and set the high marks for others to strive for. This 'how it was done' book should be read by all aspiring musicians, for the principles of success are universal and are defined within." -John McEuen, Founding Member of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band
BORN TO BE WILD
I have a theory that goes something like this: the feisty, freedom-loving spirit of JanSport is a direct byproduct of the Wild West.
You see, at the time of my birth, my parents were living in Grainfield, Kansas. Since the town's population was just under 100, there was no hospital. My folks had to drive seventy miles over the flat and dusty Kansas prairie to the nearest hospital in Hays.
It's the dust that I want you to focus on.
About a hundred years before I was born, Wild Bill Hickok—the legendary western gunslinger and gambler—was serving as the Sheriff and Marshal of Hays. Left-handed yet always quick on the draw, Wild Bill was downright handy with a rifle or knife. He routinely rounded up notorious renegades and rabble-rousers. Credited as the person who invented the idea of "posting" warnings to outlaws on the Dead Man's Tree, Hickok would put criminals on notice: either get out of town by sundown or be shot on sight the next day.
Few lingered to find out if he meant business.
This might explain why Wild Bill, born James Butler Hickok, became the hero of the first American dime novel. Tales of his gutsy adventures spread far and wide. Like a hippie forerunner, Wild Bill sported a handlebar mustache and long, shoulder-length hair. While he was shooting bad guys, drinking beer, and winning at cards, another Wild West legend was afoot, kicking up the Kansas dust.
Frontiersman William Frederick Cody, better known as Buffalo Bill, was hired to scout Indians and shoot buffalo for the Kansas Pacific Railroad as they laid tracks through Kansas towards Denver. For several years, Hays was also home to this colorful character. Although known to be a rough and tough outdoorsman, Buffalo Bill was a showman at heart. Eventually his traveling Wild West show became world famous.
Not too far off, General George Custer was stationed at Fort Riley, Kansas where he was assigned to the 7th U.S. Cavalry. He also had a brief stint kicking up dust and barking orders at Fort Hays, Kansas.
Back to my theory.
I believe the fighting spirit of these men must have lingered in the dust of Hays, Kansas. Like a well-preserved fossil, wisps of their DNA must have been trapped in the hard Kansas soil. After all, Hays is well-known for the fossils that are buried in its windswept prairies. Somehow a fragment of General Custer, Wild Bill, and Buffalo Bill's rowdy thirst for adventure found its way into my bloodstream. Don't ask me how—there are many things medical science can't explain.
As you'll see in the pages ahead, I've always gravitated toward a freedom-loving, trail-blazing lifestyle on par with these roughhewn frontiersmen. So has JanSport. A coincidence? Maybe ... but maybe not.
Granted, some would point to the bloodstock of my own family tree. My grandfather, Charlie Yowell, was both a genuine cowboy and a skilled rancher who staked his claim in Western Kansas. He was a hard-drinking, backcountry maverick who had a real love of the outdoors and an unmatched knack for trading mules, cattle, and horses. On my mother's side and heralding from Seattle, Washington, there was my grandfather, Captain John Murray. My cousin Murray Pletz, co-founder of JanSport, got his name and zany, impulsive drive from him.
During the Gold Rush of the 1890s, Captain Murray was the youngest pilot of a Sternwheeler (a steamboat propelled by a large paddle wheel) which shuttled miners from Seattle to Skagway, Alaska and back until 1933. A fearless young man who never met a challenge too tough, friends gave him the nickname "Kid Captain of the Yukon," since he was the first to navigate the uncharted Five-Finger Rapids of the Yukon River.
While living in Alaska, he also befriended two prolific writers: the acclaimed Jack London, author of more than fifty books, and Robert W. Service, who penned nineteen works, a number of which chronicled tales from the Gold Rush. Not only did my grandfather have a life of adventure, he hung out with a couple of storytellers who were always quick to spin a tall tale or two.
Whether my deep affinity for the untamed wilderness was passed down from my grandparents or from some connection to Custer, Wild Bill, and Buffalo Bill, I can't say for sure. At the very least, the legacy they left in dusty pages of American history made a lasting impression on my spirit. What is certain is that my parents played a significant role in setting the stage for the man I was to become. Come to think of it, my dad, Harold "Spoof" Yowell, had his share of unconventional pursuits, not the least of which was a Donkey Polo competition I'll explain later on.
MAMAS AND THE PAPAS
As I was preparing to work on this book, I rummaged through several boxes of photographs and stumbled on one taken during my early childhood in Grainfield, Kansas. Back then my parents were poor. Not dirt poor, but close. In spite of our tight finances, I had a look of sheer joy and total contentment on my face. My mother, Marjorie, had placed me in an old, galvanized washtub for a bath. A white, single-story home with clapboard siding was in the background, complete with a clothesline stretched from the back door to some unseen point in the yard.
We had an outhouse several steps behind our bungalow with one bedroom, a kitchen, and a small living room. Without plumbing, we used a hand pump in the backyard for water. The fact that my folks owned a home so soon after the Great Depression was pretty phenomenal. While the house is no longer there, and an assortment of weeds cover the empty lot where the house once stood, I have some great memories from that time. I cherish the love and care I received from the hands of my parents.
Dad was born and raised with the small-town family values that life in Grainfield provided. As one of fifteen kids, money was scarce. Dad delivered milk before school, raised a skinny chicken to health and sold it for a buck, and later on, was hired by the local baseball teams as a freelance pitcher. The teams paid him with fresh produce, food, and sometimes money. He was so good in sports that he was awarded a partial college scholarship and even played a little Minor League baseball.
But with the attack on Pearl Harbor in December of 1941, America was drawn into World War II. Dad promptly enlisted in the U.S. Army and served until 1945. About the same time that he was getting out of the armed forces, my mother was visiting a friend in Chicago.
Mom was a Seattle girl who lived on scenic Green Lake just north of town. She worked in a bank and, during the war, took a second job at Boeing. She was married briefly to a tank commander who was stationed in Europe during World War II. Sadly, he was killed just six months after their wedding.
Always a sharp dresser down to the fur coat, mom's winsome smile and good looks caught my father's eye as he passed through Chicago. They met, fell in love, and made immediate plans to marry. I tend to think that my dad might have done some serious sweet talking to convince a big city girl to move to Grainfield, Kansas.
The first order of business was to travel together by train to Fort Sill, Oklahoma where Dad would be discharged from the Army. Then Dad thought it would be a good idea to make a detour south and exchange vows on the steps of the Alamo in San Antonio, Texas—a place where Texans fought and died to preserve their freedom during the Texas Revolution of 1863. I'd say that fits neatly into my theory about my being linked to the Wild West. (Keep in mind that famed frontiersman Davy Crockett died in that battle.) Perhaps a bit of Davy's genetic code clung to my mom's skirt when Dad swept her off her feet and carried her across the Alamo threshold.
Stranger things have happened.
Having successfully tied the knot, my parents made their way to Grainfield to settle down. In each town or city where they stopped along the way from Texas to Kansas, my mother would ask, "Honey, is Grainfield as big as this town?"
Dad would smile and say, "No, not quite." Of course, Dad must have known that Grainfield—with just one main street and no stop lights—was sure to be a bit of a shock.
When they arrived and Mom got her first look at her new home, she cried. In fact, she cried every night for a few weeks. Grainfield wasn't even close to the size of Seattle. I imagine Dad tried his level best to put a proper spin on things. He might have pointed to the Grainfield Opera House, the only two-story structure in town, and described its grand history. After all, it was home to various vaudeville shows, comedians, and jazz bands.
It wasn't long before mom came to accept her new life and surroundings. She discovered she enjoyed hunting for arrowheads and other Native American artifacts. That was one of those interests she passed on to me. And, being a former Seattle socialite, mom started a club called the "Do What You Want to Do" club. She pulled together a group of local ladies who met once a week and did whatever they wanted to do. With a spunky attitude like that, I'd say mom had been touched by the spirit of the Wild West for sure.
I was born in 1946. With my arrival, dad had to find creative ways to pay the bills. Dad's first job out of the Army was working at Shaw Motor Company where he held an entry level position that didn't pay much. That's when his entrepreneurial spirit kicked into high gear. In addition to the weekly dances he promoted at the Opera House, he decided to sponsor a regular Donkey Polo match—a hilarious parody of the traditional polo match. Opponents would swing brooms rather than mallets to knock around plastic balls instead of a wooden polo ball. Rather than ride horses, team members mounted donkeys ... which, trust me, aren't as cooperative as their horse cousins.
Dad scraped together the money to purchase ten donkeys from eastern Colorado—a pricey purchase because meat was scarce due to the war. He engaged teams from two adjacent communities to play each other in a field at the edge of town. He printed up handbills to promote the competitions, and the locals paid a modest ticket price to attend. Many placed bets on their favorite team on the side.
Dad's creative, inventive, and "can do" spirit made a lasting impression on me. I watched him dream, make a plan, execute his plan, and, in the end, saw that a good time was had by all. Although I imagine my mom might have wondered on more than one occasion what her classy friends back in Seattle would have thought if they ever caught her at a Donkey Polo match.
While these contests were a big hit, one of the donkeys was responsible for my first scar. Just for a lark, my folks decided to put me on a donkey and take a picture when I was about three years old. Unfortunately, the beast was acting cantankerous either from having played a hard game of polo or just because he was a jackass. Whatever the reason, he threw me into a barbwire fence and gashed my right kneecap.
Thankfully, that little accident didn't prevent Mom and Dad from encouraging me to push the limits, to try new things, to hunt, fish, hike, water ski, and explore my world. For example, at a young age and at the encouragement of my mom, a friend and I hiked out to a small stream in the woods. It was a good two or three mile trek out in the country from our house. That was my first use of a pack. I used my dad's army pack. With Mom's help, we filled a canteen with juice and stuffed sandwiches and snacks into that rucksack.
I didn't realize it at the time, but later on I could see how my parents' belief in me gave me confidence. They imparted to me a picture of the amazing things that existed outside of my small world. Because my mom grew up in Seattle, she constantly drew upon her big-city knowledge to expand my horizons beyond the flat, sandy soil of Grainfield.
For his part, there wasn't a lazy bone in Dad's body. He often had to work three jobs to pay our bills. Ultimately, Dad tried his hand in the oil business. Our family moved to Russell, Kansas, the birthplace of Senator Bob Dole. Dad worked his way up the ladder from a roughneck to a "pump-around"—which is a person who checks the tank levels to see how full they were of oil.
After a season of hard work and learning the ropes, we moved again to Great Bend, Kansas. Dad took a job with the Kaiser-Francis oil company, the largest independent oil company in the country then, and in time, owned his own gas station for extra income. No question, those hard times instilled a strict work ethic in my dad, and he passed it on to me.
At his encouragement, I worked a part-time job in the oil fields. You could make a lot of money back in those days as a young kid if you didn't mind laboring in the oil field under filthy, hard, semi-dangerous conditions. A lot of guys I worked with had fingers missing.
I'll never forget one day as we were pulling rods on an oil well when the rod came back and hit me in the head. Thankfully, I was wearing a hard hat which suffered a giant dent. One of my co-workers said, "Skip, I want you to put that helmet on your desk when you get back to school. That will be your motivation to continue in your studies." You might say that experience stuck in my mind.
My parents always wanted me to go to college, something neither one of them completed. Indeed, after the close call in the oil field, lifting books in college instead of oil rods was looking pretty good to me. In 1964, I attended Wichita State University for a year with an eye on playing baseball and entering the Air Force ROTC program. You see, I had this crazy desire to learn to fly a plane.
That's when I was thrown a serious curveball.
None of us anticipated the fact that in 1967 I'd get a phone call from my cousin Murray—one that would change the course of history not just for me, but for how the entire world would come to enjoy the great outdoors.
While I'll save that story for the next chapter, there is one last coincidence I must point out. The movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was released in 1969 during the early days of JanSport, and it was based upon the life of the legendary train and bank robbers. Butch Cassidy's exploits included robbing trains on—get this—the Union Pacific Railroad.
Do you see the implication here?
Allow me to connect the dots back to my theory.
Buffalo Bill was employed by the Union Pacific Railroad ... Butch Cassidy robbed trains that ran on those rails. Who knows whether or not a fragment of Butch Cassidy's DNA found its way to Hays? It could have happened. The film was even released precisely as we were launching JanSport, which could explain why Murray and I watched the movie every night for at least two weeks in a row. We must have been cosmically connected to that bit of Wild West history.
At least that's my opinion, and I'm sticking with it.CHAPTER 2
If you had told me in 1967 that JanSport would one day celebrate forty years of innovation, adventure, and general outdoor grooviness, I might have said you were either pulling my leg or high on something. But we defied the odds and the host of naysayers who thought we couldn't succeed in business without wingtips and pressed pants. What started out as my cousin Murray's pipe dream, evolved into an international company selling several million packs a year.
Sorta makes me wonder what was in Murray's pipe.
Whether produced by an underground psycho-active substance, or inspired by the peace, love, and flower power vibe that filled the air, having a vision in the Sixties wasn't all that uncommon. So when Murray said that he had a vision of building better frame packs and selling them to climbers, I wasn't shocked. Everybody was having visions and mystical experiences.
Remembering them—well, that was something else entirely.
Thankfully, I had the foresight to carry my camera with me to capture—and thereby remember—the action. You see, ever since I was a teenager, I wanted to study photography. I had even made plans to attend the Brooks Institute of Photography. However, as Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones who had their share of visions sang, "You can't always get what you want / but if you try sometimes you just might find you get what you need." Right on, brother.
Before I took my shot at pursuing photography, Murray made me an offer I couldn't refuse. Okay, I could have turned him down, but since he and I shared so many great outdoor adventures during our childhood, it just made sense to go with the flow.
I remember in junior high school I spent several summers in Seattle with Murray and the Pletz family. It was then that I learned how amazingly skilled my Uncle Norman was in the field of engineering.
During the 1950s as a hobby, Uncle Norm was part of a pit crew for one of the hydroplane boats used in the annual race held on Lake Washington each summer. For fun, Uncle Norm built several small hydroplane boats of his own. His family and I used them to explore a beautiful small lake near the Canadian border that summer. We had the coolest time fishing, hiking, and staying in a cottage cabin on the lake with bonfires every night. These visits allowed Murray and me to bond on a number of fronts: outdoors, music, antiques, and exploring the back roads of Eastern Washington.
With that shared history, how could I turn him down?
Excerpted from The Hippie Guide to Climbing the Corporate Ladder & Other Mountains by Skip Yowell. Copyright © 2006 Skip Yowell. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
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