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Sherm Poppen, Grandfather Of Snowboarding, Dies At 89


Before snowboarding, there was snurfing. And there would be no snurfing without Sherm Poppen. Poppen, who died recently at the age of 89, is the grandfather of the sport. But on Christmas Day in 1965, Sherman Poppen of Muskegon, Mich., was just a dad trying to find something to entertain his two young daughters. His oldest, Wendy Poppen, remembers it very well.

WENDY POPPEN: We got done opening presents and eating tons of candy canes. And we're kind of bouncing off the walls. And it was really snowy outside, of course, because it was Christmas. And my mom said, Sherm, will you get these kids out of the house? They're driving me crazy.


But Sherm Poppen had a challenge. Sleds would just sink in the fresh snow. Then, inspiration struck.


SHERM POPPEN: Suddenly, I thought, you know, that hill, that dune behind the house is a permanent wave. If you could get out there, you could ride that wave all day long.

KELLY: That's Sherm Poppen and talking to Colorado-based Erin McDaniel Media in 2011. Poppen remembered bracing together a pair of his daughter's old skis and gave it a try.


S POPPEN: Well, they just had such a good time. And then the neighborhood kids came, and they wanted to play on it. That night my wife dreamed up the contraction of snow and surf, and the name Snurfer was born.

CHANG: Within a year, Poppen had a patent for the Snurfer. It was not quite like the modern snowboard. You just stood on top of the board, steered with a rope attached to the nose and down you went.

KELLY: The sport quickly grew from Poppen's Michigan snow dunes. Brunswick, a sports equipment company, made Snurfers starting in 1966. An estimated million of them had been sold by the end of the '70s. The Snurfing World Championships were held in Muskegon from 1968 to 1985.

CHANG: Wendy Poppen says around the second or third year of competition, a young surfer named Jake Burton Carpenter showed up with a tricked-out board. It was wider and even had boot bindings.

W POPPEN: And people were saying, no, he can't compete. This is a snurfing contest. And my dad said, no, I think it's great. Let's create a open division so people can create their own boards and compete.

KELLY: Well, Jack Burton Carpenter took his creation, and he founded Burton Snowboards, now one of the oldest and biggest snowboarding companies in the world.

CHANG: Poppen, though, never became a snowboard kajillionaire (ph). His priority was the welding supply company he owned and ran. Despite not making a ton of money, Wendy Poppen said her father had only one regret.

W POPPEN: Jake Burton wanted to buy the word snurfer, but my dad kept the name. And if he had sold it, now it would be called snurfing not snowboarding.

KELLY: Which means the world lost the chance to call out something like Chloe Kim, Olympic snurfing gold medalist.


CHANG: Happy snurfing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.