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Sherm Poppen, a Dad Who Fathered the Snowboard, Dies at 89

Sherm Poppen, who helped start the snowboarding industry in the 1960s when he bolted together his older daughter’s skis to create a stand-up board that could surf the snowy sand dunes behind their lakeside cottage in Michigan, died on July 31 at his home in Griffin, Ga. He was 89.

The cause was complications of a stroke, his family said.

A practical consideration — not an epiphany — drove Mr. Poppen to invent his forerunner to the snowboard.

It was Christmas Day 1965, and he was at home in Muskegon when his pregnant wife, Nancy, implored him to go outside and entertain their rambunctious daughters, Wendy, 10, and Laurie, 5.

“You can imagine — it’s Christmas, and my wife is pretty uptight, and she said, ‘Sherman, you’ve got to take these kids out of the house,’ ” he recalled in 2009 in an interview with Steamboat Pilot & Today, a newspaper in Steamboat Springs, Col. “And we were having a huge snowstorm on the shores of Lake Michigan.”

He first took out a sled, but its blades cut through the snow and got stuck in the sand beneath.

Then he spotted Wendy’s child-size skis. Envisioning the dunes as surfable waves, he created a surfable board by bracing the skis with wooden cross bars.

His daughters caught on quickly, and soon so did their friends, who wanted to try it themselves. His wife — who gave birth to a third daughter, Julie, three days after Christmas — thought up a name for the board: the Snurfer, a contraction of “snow” and “surfer.”

The enthusiastic reception the board received prompted him to make improvements. He made a second version from a single water ski that had foot grips, then added a tether to the nose of the board to help the rider steer it.

ImageCreditWendy Poppen

In early 1966 he filed a patent application, in which he took a broad view of the Snurfer’s potential, declaring that it was for a “new sport” that incorporated “surfboarding, skate boarding and slalom water skiing.”

He was prescient. Decades later the snowboard would become the basis of a major new recreational business at ski resorts and integral to extreme sports competitions and, in the 1990s, the Winter Olympics.

Granted the patent in 1968, he licensed the Snurfer’s manufacturing rights later that year to the Brunswick Corporation, a bowling alley equipment manufacturer with a factory in Muskegon that was expanding into consumer products. By Christmas, Brunswick was selling Snurfers made of the same laminated wood it used for bowling alleys.

“Snurf’s the word,” an early print advertisement read. “Surfing’s the newest snow sport!”

Over the next decade or so, Mr. Poppen collected royalties on the hundreds of thousand of Snurfers that Brunswick and then the Jem Corporation, which bought the rights from Brunswick in 1973, sold for $5 to $10 each (the equivalent of about $30 to $50 today).

At those prices it was not a huge moneymaker for Mr. Poppen, who felt that Brunswick had not marketed it well. He said, for instance, that the company had advertised the Snurfer in markets where it had not been stocked in stores.

“They blew it so bad,” he told Skiing Heritage magazine in 2008.

Sherman Robert Poppen was born in Muskegon on March 25, 1930. His father, Cyrus, was a lawyer and the city’s attorney. His mother, Leila (Fowler) Poppen, was a homemaker.

After graduating from Northwestern University with a bachelor’s degree in business and serving in the Navy, Mr. Poppen returned to Muskegon and found a job at Lake Welding Supply, which leased tanks of industrial gas and distributed welding supplies. He eventually became its owner, and the company, not the Snurfer, remained the focus of his career.

But it was the Snurfer, not his business, that brought him renown. One of its earliest fans was Jake Burton Carpenter, who got his first board in 1968, when he was 14.

ImageCreditNational Museum of American History

“It was a dream come true,” Mr. Carpenter said by phone. “I wanted to surf, and I knew snow because I was a skier.”

Mr. Carpenter began making a more advanced kind of snowboard himself in the 1970s, initially calling it a snow surfer. His product had bindings and other features that Mr. Poppen’s design did not, and sales took off. His company, Burton Boards, grew to become the world’s largest snowboard manufacturer.

“He saw a future that I dreamed about but didn’t dream possible,” Mr. Poppen said of Mr. Carpenter on the FNRad snowboarding podcast in 2015.

Mr. Carpenter said there was no doubt that the modern snowboard industry began with the Snurfer.

“Sherman Poppen definitely didn’t feed off anything else,” he said, referring to earlier attempts at creating snowboards, like one called a skiboggan. “It was his own imagination and creativity that made the Snurfer.”

In 2009, Mr. Poppen donated a Snurfer prototype, two of his manufactured boards and documents related to his invention to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History.

The next year, Smithsonian magazine named the invention of the Snurfer the most important event in snowboarding history.

Mr. Poppen’s first wife, Nancy (Bazarnick) Poppen, died in 1993. He is survived by his wife, Louise (Kelly) Poppen; his daughters, Wendy, Julie and Laurie Poppen; a stepson, Patrick Kelly; five grandchildren; and a sister, Leila Reynolds.

The creation of the Snurfer was commemorated in downtown Muskegon in 2012 with a 14-foot bronze sculpture, called “Turning Point.” It depicts a female figure, based on Wendy, at the top of a hill and a modern-day snowboarder at the bottom. About 100 people attended the unveiling, and nearly all said they had snurfed as children.

One of them, Sue Asmussen, brought three Snurfers for Mr. Poppen to autograph.

“We would come home from school,” she told MLive, a Michigan news website, “change our clothes and go out snurfing, and wouldn’t come home until it got dark.”


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