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‘One in a million’: Sherman Poppen, inventor of the Snurfer, remembered as a ‘driving force’ in Muskegon who changed thousands of students’ lives

Sherm Poppen with a Poppen student. Photo courtesy of the Poppen Programs.

Sherman Poppen believed in people. 

He believed in their goodness, in their capacity to soar to heights others thought impossible. He believed in them when others didn’t: he knew that, sometimes, we all need a boost, whether that’s in the Michigan snow, while finding a reason to stay in school because of the arts, or as the first one in your family to attend college.

“He was one in a million,” said Judy Johnson, a longtime friend of Sherm’s who worked with him as the executive director of the Poppen Programs, an initiative launched by Sherm and his wife, Nancy, to provide arts opportunities for Muskegon Public Schools students. “He was a big, driving force. I have been so privileged to know him, work for him, and serve the children that he and Nancy chose to serve. It’s been a gift.”

From students whose lives he forever changed to former colleagues who described him as a father figure, there has been an outpouring of remembrances about Sherm, a Muskegon native who this week passed away at the age of 89 years old.

Sherm was born in Muskegon on March 25, 1930. A graduate of Muskegon High School, Sherm would go on to attend Northwestern University on a full-ride NROTC Naval Scholarship. He graduated with a business degree, after which he served in the U.S. Navy as a supply officer on the USS Perry.

After returning from the Navy, Sherm dedicated his career to owning Lake Welding Supply Co. He sold the business to his employees when he retired in the early 1990s.

Known around the globe as the father of modern day snowboarding, Sherm invented the Snurfer—a predecessor of the snowboard—in 1965 for his two daughters, then 10-year-old Wendy and five-year-old Laurie. On Christmas Day of that year, the two girls were causing some mischief for their mother, who was pregnant at the time. To occupy them, Sherm fastened two skis together for his daughters to ride down the snow-filled dunes of the former Pigeon Hill, located behind the family’s Beach Street house. He patented the invention a year later, and since then he has gone on to be lauded as a sports pioneer who has brought countless amounts of joy to people across the globe.

But it wasn’t just his Snurfer that changed the world. Sherm and his wife, Nancy, who was an artist, started the Nancy K. Poppen Fund at the Community Foundation for Muskegon County in 1993, and the initiative has gone on to provide individualized arts opportunities for more than 2,000 low-income Muskegon Public Schools students. Through the fund, students can access music lessons, visual arts classes, creative writing classes, or funding to attend dance or theater classes at local institutions.

In 2000, after meeting with the recipients of the Nancy K. Poppen Fund and learning of their difficulties affording college, Sherm established the Sherman R. Poppen Scholarship Fund at the Community Foundation to provide scholarships for Muskegon High School graduates who are pursuing the arts and have participated in programs funded by the Nancy K. Poppen Fund.

Poppen students have gone on to pour their passion into our community and the world, with students traveling the globe as musicians, others moving to New York City to work on Broadway, and individuals keeping their talents here in Muskegon. Jubenal Rodriguez, for example, was a Poppen scholar who’s now been commissioned by Community enCompass to paint the expansive outdoors mural at the corner of Third Street and Monroe Avenue in the Nelson neighborhood.

“Everything Sherm did was about community investment, reinvestment, sharing the wealth, and empowering the next generation,” said Poppen Programs Executive Director Claire Root Benson.

“He’s always been an incredible supporter; it clearly gave him a lot of joy to hear about any of the kids in the program,” she continued. “He’s by far the most self-effacing and wonderful donor. He gave with an open heart.”

Sherm and his sister, Leila, also founded the Leila and Cyrus Poppen Hospice Residence in Fruitport Township to honor their parents.

A deep advocate for Muskegon youth, Sherm would frequently be moved to the point of tears when individuals from the Poppen Programs would share stories about their students, many of whom were inspired to remain in school because of the arts—and many of whom were the first in their families to attend college through the Sherman R. Poppen Scholarship Fund.

“We want our kids to be exposed to the arts in any capacity; we believe that’s enriching and it’s helpful in ways you wouldn’t think,” Claire said. “I think of the kids who’ve been having a hard time in the general classroom but find their niche in the arts, and that becomes their motivator to stay in school.”

“The Turning Point,” a sculpture in downtown Muskegon that honors Sherman Poppen and his Snurfer.
Many of those who loved Sherm gathered at “The Turning Point” sculpture and left remembrances to honor Sherm.

During a reception for Sherm and Louise, Sherm’s second wife, at the Muskegon Museum of Art, the two got to meet students impacted by the Poppen Programs.

“After the reception, he called me and said, ‘You gave me what was probably the best night of my life,’ because he got to meet the kids,” Judy said.

He too would powerfully remind those around him that success comes in many forms that aren’t always immediately visible, Poppen Programs Board Chairman Kevin Donovan said.

“One year, we had a kid who didn’t pan out, and some of the board members weren’t too happy about that, saying it was a waste of money and whatnot, but Sherm’s comment was, ‘Well, it didn’t pay off right now, but that doesn’t mean it’s not going to pay off,’” Kevin said. “That’s always stuck with me any time we’ve come across a failure, so to speak. I always think back to Sherm saying just because it doesn’t pay off right now doesn’t mean it’s not going to pay off.”

In addition to the thousands of children who’ve gone through the Poppen Programs, Sherm too bettered the lives of adults around him. Judy, for example, said being hired as the Poppen Programs executive director saved her life.

“My husband, Jim, died unexpectedly in 2002, and I was sitting on the couch one day and said, ‘God, you have to send me something worthwhile to do or I’m not going to make it,’” she said. “Two weeks later, they gave me the job.”

“It really saved my life,” Judy continued. “It gave me something worthwhile to do. To be able to see the dramatic difference the Poppen Programs made in the lives of our Muskegon school children has just been amazing. You find something a child does really well, you reward that, and that leaks over into the rest of their lives. It makes them not only better students but better people.”

For Judy, Sherm became a close confidante who was always there to support her and the Poppen students.

“He made a big impact on my life,” she said. “I was newly widowed, and he became a father figure. We would sit and talk about all the kids, and he would get teary eyed sometimes. I loved sitting and talking with him. He was such a wise, wise person.”

Thank you, Sherm, for giving our community, our students, and our world wings. Thank you for giving us a chance to see the world in a new light, and reminding us of the power of endlessly loving our community and everyone in it. You will be so very missed.

Details on a celebration of Sherm’s life in Muskegon are still pending. In lieu of flowers, the family has asked that contributions be made to the Poppen Programs (for the Sherman R. Poppen Scholarship, please click here, and for the Nancy K. Poppen Fund, please click here); the Harbor Hospice Foundation or a local hospice program; and/or SOS Outreach, a Colorado-based program that provides outdoor opportunities for underserved youth.