Former Steamboat resident Sherman Poppen, grandfather of snowboarding, dies at age 89
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Sherman R. Poppen, a former Steamboat Springs resident and inventor of an early snowboard called the “Snurfer,” died at the age of 89 on Wednesday, July 31, 2019.
On Christmas Day 1965, while living with his first wife and two, nearly three, children in Muskegon, Michigan, Poppen nailed his daughters’ skis together and an early version of the snowboard was born.
His impact on the sport of snowboarding is even recognized nationally. The original Snurfers are housed in the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation at the Smithsonian Institution, and three Snurfers reside at the Colorado Snowsports Museum in Vail.
The invention of the Snurfer is the first of 10 important moments in snowboarding history, according to smithsonianmag.com.
“He was, as far as snowboarding is concerned, a true innovator and a visionary,” said John Dakin of the Colorado Snowsports Museum. “Today’s snowboarders owe him a great debt of gratitude for the movement that he really helped to jump start.”
Nearby manufacturer Brunswick partnered with Poppen to mass produce the Snurfer and have it on shelves ahead of Christmas 1966. They even enhanced the design, creating a Super Snurfer that featured a metal skeg beneath the tail to improve the ability to steer.
Poppen helped begin the first-ever World Snurfing Competition in 1968. At the annual event, a young Jake Burton got a taste for the sport. From there, Burton began to modify the design into the modern-day snowboard.
Poppen’s daughters Wendy and Julie recall an interview in which their father voiced just one regret.
“Jake Burton wanted to buy the name Snurfer, and my Dad wouldn’t sell it to him,” Wendy Poppen said. “(He said) ‘That’s my biggest regret because then it would be called Snurfing not snowboarding.’”
Poppen was inducted into the Snowboarding Hall of Fame in 1995 and was nominated to enter the National Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame in 2009 but has yet to receive that honor.
A life of philanthropy
While his name will always be tied to snowboarding, Poppen also took pride in his philanthropy and involvement in all the communities in which he resided.
Back in his hometown of Muskegon, Poppen built up his business, Lake Welding Supply Co., before selling it to his employees when he retired in the early 1990s.
“Selling it to his employees, he gave everyone, including the guys rolling the cylinders around in the back such a huge retirement (fund) and quality of life and solid resources,” Sherman’s daughter Julie Poppen said. “He was really proud that he took care of his employees that way.”
He was inducted into the Muskegon Area Sports Hall of Fame in 2001 and the Muskegon Lakeshore Chamber of Commerce Business Hall of Fame Award in 2012.
Around the time his first wife, Nancy, died in 1993, Poppen created the Nancy K. Poppen Fund, now known as Poppen Programs, which supports low-income K-12 students who are interested in the arts in Muskegon. More recently, he added a college scholarship to Poppen Programs.
The town honored him in 2012 with the unveiling of a sculpture called “The Turning Point” to commemorate the invention of the Snurfer, as well as his civic contributions.
“At the end of the day, he loved the Snurfer story, and I think he enjoyed being in the limelight, but these bigger impacts on people’s lives were probably more profound for him,” Julie Poppen said.
Poppen lived an active lifestyle, racing sailboats for most of his life, and attending Northwestern University on a full NROTC Naval Scholarship. He served in the Navy on the USS Perry after graduating with a degree in business.
A fun family man
Sherman and Nancy raised their three daughters, Wendy, Laurie and Julie, to be active.
“He was a really fun dad — not so much the camping and wilderness stuff, more like sailing and running,” said Julie, Poppen’s youngest daughter. “He got really into running and tennis for a while, and skiing, until he started snowboarding with his current wife, Louise. (He was) always doing stuff — playing on the beach with us, running around, swimming. (He was) a very, very physical, high-activity person.”
Poppen’s daughters also recall him being a bit of a prankster.
“Our mom was more of an introvert, quieter type,” Wendy said. “He was the gregarious, outgoing, do backflips into the hot tub crazy man.”
Julie recalled a story she always heard about him tricking his mother. Using a ballpoint pen, he drew ‘I love Mom’ on his arm and came home saying he had gotten a tattoo.
“She about blew a gasket,” Julie said. “Of course, it was just a ballpoint pen.”
“He was a fun Dad. He kept us on our toes,” Wendy added.
Wendy came to Steamboat Springs in the 1980s to be a ski instructor, and her parents soon followed, moving to Steamboat in the early ’90s.
“It’s so funny, my Dad would say, ‘Wendy you should get a real job, you’re just a ski bum. What are you doing? Get a real job,’” Wendy recalled. “Then him and my mom decided to buy a condo there and live in the mountains some place. One night at dinner, I said, ‘Hey, Dad, look at you. You’re a ski bum now. What’s the difference between us?’ and he goes, ‘I’m a ski bum with money.’”
Despite inventing the Snurfer 30 years earlier, it wasn’t until his late 60s or early 70s, that he began to snowboard.
“He used to go to snowboarding conventions on his skis,” Wendy said. “Everyone else was snowboarding. He would be the big star, make all these speeches, then finally one year, they said, ‘Sir, we love you so much, and we want you to keep coming, but you cannot come back with skis next year. You have to come back on a snowboard.’ So that year, he taught himself to snowboard.”
In 2008, Sherman and his second wife, Louise, relocated to Griffin, Georgia.
Poppen loved the Steamboat powder, so when the snow begins to fall, his daughters are planning to arrange a small tribute on his favorite run.
Details on celebrations of life to be held in Griffin, Muskegon and Steamboat are pending.
In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made to: the Poppen Programs, Inc.; the Harbor Hospice Foundation or the local hospice program; or SOS Outreach, a Colorado-based program that brings underserved youth into the mountains to snowboard, ski, camp and build skills for life.