During the 94th Annual Meeting & Banquet for the Great Bend Chamber of Commerce & Economic Development, Skip Yowell was posthumously recognized as the first recipient of the Legacy Award for putting Great Bend on the map through lifelong advocacy for the outdoor industry and for proudly hailing his roots in Great Bend wherever he went.
Harold “Skip” Murray Yowell was born in July 1946 in Hays. His father worked in the oil well business, while his mother was a homemaker taking care of Skip and his three siblings. Yowell graduated from Great Bend High School in 1964 before attending Wichita State University and then Fort Hays State University. While he never completed a formal college degree, his enthusiasm and entrepreneurial spirit gave him the foundation for his eventual success.
Yowell and his cousin, Murray Pletz, founded the outdoor sporting good company in 1967 in a spare room above a Seattle office belonging to Yowell’s uncle. Pletz had been working on an idea for an adjustable external-frame backpack for hikers. His idea won some money in a design competition, so he enlisted the help of Yowell and other family members to start a company. They named JanSport after Murray’s girlfriend, Jan Lewis, who later became his wife. The trio worked hard to make quality products and market their brand.
“His whole life was outdoors and introducing it to generations of people. That was so important to him,” said his sister, Diana Crouch. “He never lost his passion for nature, but they were constantly adapting to keep up with the times.”
While the initial focus for JanSport was the type of backpacks commonly used by hikers, a change in the industry and a hugely positive response from the student population resulted in a massive shift of focus. Day packs, the kind students carry books and pencils in, made up half their sales by the 1980s. “Things just took off,” Yowell once said. In the beginning, he added, his major worry “was whether I was going to have enough money to go skiing.”
Yowell’s lifelong love of nature had material results. He and Pletz came up with the idea for a dome tent after being caught in a snowstorm on Mount Rainier, which diversified the JanSport brand even further. The growing brand caught the attention of the VF Corporation, a lifestyle brand based in Greensboro, North Carolina. VF purchased JanSport in 1986.
On its website, JanSport still offers a rugged-looking line of backpacks inspired by Yowell. The Skip Yowell Collections even manufactured a bag named after Great Bend.
At the time of his death, Yowell held the title of vice president for Global Public Relations, a position worthy of his charisma and zest for life. Ann Dawson, the current president of marketing, said that until his failing health prevented it, Yowell would often drive four and a half hours to the Denver airport to fly to Indonesia, Brazil, or anywhere else that was needed to promote the brand.
On a national and global level, Yowell was a founding member of the Outdoor Industry Association, a trade group, and worked with the Big City Mountaineers, a wilderness mentorship program. Regionally, he contributed his time and energy to inspire young people with his passion for nature.
In 2007, Yowell published “The Hippie Guide to Climbing the Corporate Ladder & Other Mountains,” and returned to Great Bend to give a keynote address at the Chamber’s Annual Meeting & Banquet. He returned to Great Bend many times in the years to follow, speaking to student groups, offering lectures at the Kansas Wetlands Education Center, and donating his time to raise awareness for Cheyenne Bottoms and its natural resources.
After a long battle with cancer, Yowell passed away in October 2015 in St. Peter, Kansas. He is survived by his wife Winnie; daughter Quinn; stepdaughter Wesley Kingsbury; stepson Hunt Kingsbury; sister Diana Crouch and brother Lindsey.
“Skip’s legacy is hard to sum up in a few sentences, but the best way to describe him was as an advocate – an advocate for nature, an advocate for spending time in the great outdoors, and most of all an advocate for his hometown of Great Bend, Kansas,” said Jan Peters, president/CEO for the Great Bend Chamber. “His contributions to the global outdoor industry are immeasurable, and he has left an imprint on the hearts of the Great Bend community. His legacy is something we can all be proud of.”
Legacy Award Criteria
The Legacy award is a new award of the Great Bend Chamber of Commerce & Economic Development that has been created to recognize Great Bend natives who create a meaningful legacy for themselves and the Great Bend community through entrepreneurship, advocacy, philanthropy, or volunteer service.
New York Times - http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/18/business/skip-yowell-jansport-co-founder-who-blazed-trail-for-backpacks-dies-at-69.html?_r=0