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Skip Yowell dead; co-founder of JanSport was 69

(TNS) - Skip Yowell, a Kansas boy and avowed hippie who made it to Mount 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 last Wednesday at his home in St. Peter, Kansas.

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.

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.

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.

"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, Kansas, 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 JanSport's western roots and its young owners' countercultural leanings. Once a year, he took staffers, reporters, sporting goods buyers on a rigorous climb up Mount Rainier. The tradition endured more than 40 years.

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.

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