Suddenly, a whole new cast of characters was wandering in and out of the
office. Rising sales enabled me to hire more and more reps. Most were exrunners, and eccentrics, as only ex-runners can be. But when it came to
selling they were all business. Because they were inspired by what we were
trying to do, and because they worked solely on commission (two dollars a
pair), they were burning up the roads, hitting every high school and college
track meet within a thousand-mile radius, and their extraordinary efforts
were boosting our numbers even more.
We’d posted $150,000 in sales in 1968, and in 1969 we were on our way
to just under $300,000. Though Wallace was still breathing down my neck,
hassling me to slow down and moaning about my lack of equity, I decided
that Blue Ribbon was doing well enough to justify a salary for its founder.
Right before my thirty-first birthday I made the bold move. I quit Portland
State and went full-time at my company, paying myself a fairly generous
eighteen thousand dollars a year.
Above all, I told myself, the best reason for leaving Portland State was
that I’d already gotten more out of the school—Penny—than I’d ever hoped.
I got something else, too; I just didn’t know it at the time. Nor did I dream
how valuable it would prove to be.
IN MY LAST week on campus, walking through the halls, I noticed a group
of young women standing around an easel. One of them was daubing at a
large canvas, and just as I passed I heard her lamenting that she couldn’t
afford to take a class on oil painting. I stopped, admired the canvas. “My
company could use an artist,” I said.
“What?” she said.
“My company needs someone to do some advertising. Would you like to
make some extra money?”
I still didn’t see any bang-for-the-buck in advertising, but I was starting to
accept that I could no longer ignore it. The Standard Insurance Company
had just run a full-page ad in the Wall Street Journal, touting Blue Ribbon as
one of the dynamic young companies among its clients. The ad featured a
photo of Bowerman and me . . . staring at a shoe. Not as if we were shoe
innovators; more as if we’d never seen a shoe before. We looked like
morons. It was embarrassing.
In some of our ads the model was none other than Johnson. See Johnson
rocking a blue tracksuit. See Johnson waving a javelin. When it came to
advertising, our approach was primitive and slapdash. We were making it up
as we went along, learning on the fly, and it showed. In one ad—for the
Tiger marathon flat, I think—we referred to the new fabric as
“swooshfiber.” To this day none of us remembers who first came up with the
word, or what it meant. But it sounded good.
People were telling me constantly that advertising was important, that
advertising was the next wave. I always rolled my eyes. But if icky photos and
made-up words—and Johnson, posed seductively on a couch—were slipping
into our ads, I needed to start paying more attention. “I’ll give you two bucks
an hour,” I told this starving artist in the hallway at Portland State. “To do
what?” she asked. “Design print ads,” I said, “do some lettering, logos,
maybe a few charts and graphs for presentations.”
It didn’t sound like much of a gig. But the poor kid was desperate. She
wrote her name on a piece of paper. Carolyn Davidson. And her number. I
shoved it in my pocket and forgot all about it.
HIRING SALES REPS
and graphic artists showed great optimism, and I
didn’t consider myself an optimist by nature. Not that I was a pessimist. I
generally tried to hover between the two, committing to neither. But as 1969
approached, I found myself staring into space and thinking the future might
be bright. After a good night’s sleep, after a hearty breakfast, I could see
plenty of reason for hope. Aside from our robust and rising sales numbers,
Onitsuka would soon be bringing out several exciting new models, including
the Obori, which featured a feather-light nylon upper. Also, the Marathon,
another nylon, with lines sleek as a Karmann Ghia. These shoes will sell
themselves, I told Woodell many times, hanging them on the corkboard.
Also, Bowerman was back from Mexico City, where he’d been an assistant
coach on the U.S. Olympic team, meaning he’d played a pivotal role in the
U.S. winning more gold medals than any team, from any nation, ever. My
partner was more than famous; he was legendary.
I phoned Bowerman, eager to get his overall thoughts on the Games, and
particularly on the moment for which they would forever be remembered,
the protest of John Carlos and Tommie Smith. Standing on the podium
during the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” both men had bowed
their heads and raised black-gloved fists, a shocking gesture, meant to call
attention to racism, poverty, human rights abuses. They were still being
condemned for it. But Bowerman, as I fully expected, supported them.
Bowerman supported all runners.
Carlos and Smith were shoeless during the protest; they’d conspicuously
removed their Pumas and left them on the stands. I told Bowerman I
couldn’t decide if this had been a good thing or a bad thing for Puma. Was
all publicity really good publicity? Was publicity like advertising? A
Bowerman chuckled and said he wasn’t sure.
He told me about the scandalous behavior of Puma and Adidas
throughout the Games. The world’s two biggest athletic shoe companies—‐
run by two German brothers who despised each other—had chased each
other like Keystone Kops around the Olympic Village, jockeying for all the
athletes. Huge sums of cash, often stuffed in running shoes or manila
envelopes, were passed around. One of Puma’s sales reps even got thrown in
jail. (There were rumors that Adidas had framed him.) He was married to a
female sprinter, and Bowerman joked that he’d only married her to secure
Worse, it didn’t stop at mere payouts. Puma had smuggled truckloads of
shoes into Mexico City, while Adidas cleverly managed to evade Mexico’s
stiff import tariffs. I heard through the grapevine they did it by making a
nominal number of shoes at a factory in Guadalajara.
Bowerman and I didn’t feel morally offended; we felt left out. Blue
Ribbon had no money for payouts, and therefore no presence at the Games.
We’d had one meager booth in the Olympic Village, and one guy
working it—Bork. I didn’t know if Bork had been sitting there reading comic
books, or just hadn’t been able to compete with the massive presence of
Adidas and Puma, but either way his booth generated zero business, zero
buzz. No one stopped by.
Actually, one person did stop by. Bill Toomey, a brilliant American
decathlete, asked for some Tigers, so he could show the world that he
couldn’t be bought. But Bork didn’t have his size. Nor the right shoes for
any of his events.
Plenty of athletes were training in Tigers, Bowerman reported. We just
didn’t have anybody actually competing in them. Part of the reason was
quality; Tigers just weren’t good enough yet. The main reason, however,
was money. We had not a penny for endorsement deals.
“We’re not broke,” I told Bowerman, “we just don’t have any money.”
He grunted. “Either way,” he said, “wouldn’t it be wonderful to be able to
pay athletes? Legally?”
Lastly, Bowerman told me he’d bumped into Kitami at the Games. He
didn’t much care for the man. “Doesn’t know a damn thing about shoes,”
Bowerman grumbled. “And he’s a little too slick. Little too full of himself.”
I was starting to have the same inklings. I’d gotten a sense from Kitami’s
last few wires and letters that he might not be the man he’d seemed, and that
he wasn’t the fan of Blue Ribbon he’d appeared to be when I was last in
Japan. I had a bad feeling in my bones. Maybe he was getting ready to jack
up our prices. I mentioned this to Bowerman, and told him I was taking
measures to protect us. Before hanging up I boasted that, though I didn’t
have enough cash or cachet to pay athletes, I did have enough to buy
someone at Onitsuka. I had a man on the inside, I said, a man acting as my
eyes and ears and keeping tabs on Kitami.
I sent out a memo saying as much to all Blue Ribbon employees. (By now
we had around forty.) Though I’d fallen in love with Japanese culture—I
kept my souvenir samurai sword beside my desk—I also warned them that
Japanese business practices were thoroughly perplexing. In Japan you
couldn’t predict what either your competition or your partner might do. I’d
given up trying. Instead, I wrote, “I’ve taken what I think is a big step to
keep us informed. I’ve hired a spy. He works full-time in the Onitsuka
Export Department. Without going into a lengthy discussion of why I will
just tell you that I feel he is trustworthy.
“This spy may seem somewhat unethical to you, but the spy system is
ingrained and completely accepted in Japanese business circles. They
actually have schools for industrial spies, much as we have schools for typists
I can’t imagine what made me use the word “spy” so wantonly, so boldly,
other than the fact that James Bond was all the rage just then. Nor can I
understand why, when I was revealing so much, I didn’t reveal the spy’s
name. It was Fujimoto, whose bicycle I’d replaced.
I think I must have known, on some level, that the memo was a mistake, a
terribly stupid thing to do. And that I would live to regret it. I think I knew.
But I often found myself as perplexing as Japanese business practices.
KITAMI AND MR.
Onitsuka both attended the Games in Mexico City, and
afterward they both flew to Los Angeles. I flew down from Oregon to meet
them for dinner at a Japanese restaurant in Santa Monica. I was late, of
course, and by the time I arrived they were full of sake. Like schoolboys on
holiday: Each was wearing a souvenir sombrero, loudly woohooing.
I tried hard to mirror their festive mood. I matched them shot for shot,
helped them finish off several platters of sushi, and generally bonded with
them both. At my hotel that night I went to bed thinking, hoping, I’d been
paranoid about Kitami.
The next morning we all flew to Portland so they could meet the gang at
Blue Ribbon. I realized that in my letters to Onitsuka, not to mention my
conversations with them, I might have overplayed the grandeur of our
“worldwide headquarters.” Sure enough I saw Kitami’s face drop as he
walked in. I also saw Mr. Onitsuka looking around, bewildered. I hastened to
apologize. “It may look small,” I said, laughing tightly, “but we do a lot of
business out of this room!”
They looked at the broken windows, the javelin window closer, the wavy
plywood room divider. They looked at Woodell in his wheelchair. They felt
the walls vibrating from the Pink Bucket jukebox. They looked at each
other, dubious. I told myself: Whelp, it’s all over.
Sensing my embarrassment, Mr. Onitsuka put a reassuring hand on my
shoulder. “It is . . . most charming,” he said.
On the far wall Woodell had hung a large, handsome map of the United
States, and he’d put a red pushpin everywhere we’d sold a pair of Tigers in
the last five years. The map was covered with red pushpins. For one merciful
moment it diverted attention from our office space. Then Kitami pointed at
eastern Montana. “No pins,” he said. “Obviously salesman here not doing
DAYS WENT SWOOSHING
by. I was trying to build a company and a
marriage. Penny and I were learning to live together, learning to meld our
personalities and idiosyncrasies, though we agreed that she was the one with
all the personality and I was the idiosyncratic one. Therefore it was she who
had more to learn.
For instance, she was learning that I spent a fair portion of each day lost
in my own thoughts, tumbling down mental wormholes, trying to solve
some problem or construct some plan. I often didn’t hear what she said, and
if I did hear I didn’t remember it minutes later.
She was learning that I was absentminded, that I would drive to the
grocery store and come home empty-handed, without the one item she’d
asked me to buy, because all the way there and all the way back I’d been
puzzling over the latest bank crisis, or the most recent Onitsuka shipping
She was learning that I misplaced everything, especially the important
things, like wallets and keys. Bad enough that I couldn’t multitask, but I
insisted on trying. I’d often scan the financial pages while eating lunch—and
driving. My new black Cougar didn’t remain new for long. As the Mr.
Magoo of Oregon, I was forever bumping into trees and poles and other
She was learning that I wasn’t housebroken. I left the toilet seat up, left
my clothes where they fell, left food on the counter. I was effectively
helpless. I couldn’t cook, or clean, or do even the simplest things for myself,
because I’d been spoiled rotten by my mother and sisters. All those years in
the servants’ quarters, I’d essentially had servants.
She was learning that I didn’t like to lose, at anything, that losing for me
was a special form of agony. I often flippantly blamed Bowerman, but it went
way back. I told her about playing Ping-Pong with my father when I was a
boy, and the pain of never being able to beat him. I told her that my father
would sometimes laugh when he won, which sent me into a rage. More than
once I’d thrown down my paddle and run off crying. I wasn’t proud of this
behavior, but it was ingrained. It explained me. She didn’t really get it until
we went bowling. Penny was a very good bowler—she’d taken a bowling
class at Oregon State—so I perceived this as a challenge, and I was going to
meet the challenge head-on. I was determined to win, and thus everything
other than a strike made me glum.
Above all, she was learning that marrying a man with a start-up shoe
company meant living on a shoestring budget. And yet she thrived. I could
give her only twenty-five dollars a week for groceries, and still she managed
to whip up delicious meals. I gave her a credit card with a two-thousanddollar limit to furnish our entire apartment, and she managed to buy a
dinette table, two chairs, a Zenith TV, and a big couch with soft arms,
perfect for napping. She also bought me a brown recliner, which she stuck in
a corner of the living room. Now, each night, I could lean back at a fortyfive-degree angle and spin inside my own head all I wanted. It was more
comfortable, and safer, than the Cougar.
I got into the habit every night of phoning my father from my recliner.
He’d always be in his recliner, too, and together, recliner to recliner, we’d
hash out the latest threat confronting Blue Ribbon. He no longer saw my
business as a waste of my time, apparently. Though he didn’t say so
explicitly, he did seem to find the problems I faced “interesting,” and
“challenging,” which amounted to the same thing.
of 1969 Penny began to complain of feeling poorly in the
mornings. Food didn’t sit well. By midday she was often a little wobbly
around the office. She went to the doctor—the same doctor who’d delivered
her—and discovered she was pregnant.
We were both overjoyed. But we also faced a whole new learning curve.
Our cozy apartment was now completely inappropriate. We’d have to buy
a house, of course. But could we afford a house? I’d just started to pay myself
a salary. And in which part of town should we buy? Where were the best
schools? And how was I supposed to research real estate prices and schools,
plus all the other things that go into buying a house, while running a startup company? Was it even feasible to run a start-up company while starting a
family? Should I go back to accounting, or teaching, or something more
Leaning back in my recliner each night, staring at the ceiling, I tried to
settle myself. I told myself: Life is growth. You grow or you die.
WE FOUND : A house in Beaverton. Small, only sixteen hundred square feet,
but it had an acre of land around it, and a little horse corral, and a pool.
There was also a huge pine tree in the front and a Japanese bamboo out
back. I loved it. More, I recognized it. When I was growing up my sisters
asked me several times what my dream house would look like, and one day
they handed me a charcoal pencil and a pad and made me draw it. After
Penny and I moved in, my sisters dug out the old charcoal sketch. It was an
exact picture of the Beaverton house.
The price was thirty-four thousand dollars, and I popped my shirt buttons
to discover that I had 20 percent of that in savings. On the other hand, I’d
pledged those savings against my many loans at First National. So I went
down to talk to Harry White. I need the savings for a down payment on a
house, I said—but I’ll pledge the house.
“Okay,” he said. “On this one we don’t have to consult Wallace.”
That night I told Penny that if Blue Ribbon failed we’d lose the house.
She put a hand on her stomach and sat down. This was the kind of insecurity
she’d always vowed to avoid. Okay, she kept saying, okaaaay.
With so much at stake, she felt compelled to keep working for Blue
Ribbon, right through her pregnancy. She would sacrifice everything to Blue
Ribbon, even her deeply held goal of graduating from college. And when she
wasn’t physically in the office, she would run a mail order business out of the
new house. In 1969 alone, despite morning sickness, swollen ankles, weight
gain, and constant fatigue, Penny got out fifteen hundred orders. Some of
the orders were nothing more than crude tracings of a human foot, sent in
by customers in far-flung places, but Penny didn’t care. She dutifully
matched the tracing to the correct shoe and filled the order. Every sale
AT THE SAME time that my family outgrew its home,
so did my business.
One room beside the Pink Bucket could no longer contain us. Also, Woodell
and I were tired of shouting to be heard above that jukebox. So each night
after work we’d go out for cheeseburgers, then drive around looking at office
Logistically, it was a nightmare. Woodell had to drive, because his
wheelchair wouldn’t fit in my Cougar, and I always felt guilty and
uncomfortable, being chauffeured by a man with so many limitations. I also
felt crazed with nerves, because many of the offices we looked at were up a
flight of stairs. Or several flights. This meant I’d have to wheel Woodell up
At such moments I was reminded, painfully, of his reality. During a
typical workday, Woodell was so positive, so energetic, it was easy to forget.
But wheeling him, maneuvering him, upstairs, downstairs, I was repeatedly
struck by how delicate, how helpless he could be. I’d pray under my breath.
Please don’t let me drop him. Please don’t let me drop him. Woodell, hearing me,
would tense up, and his tension would make me more nervous. “Relax,” I’d
say, “I haven’t lost a patient yet—haha!”
No matter what happened, he’d never lose his composure. Even at his
most vulnerable, with me balancing him precariously at the top of some dark
flight of stairs, he’d never lose touch with his essential philosophy: Don’t you
dare feel sorry for me. I’m here to kill you.
(The first time I ever sent him to a trade show, the airline lost his
wheelchair. And when they found it, the frame was bent like a pretzel. No
problem. In his mutilated chair, Woodell attended the show, ticked off every
item on his to-do list, and came home with an ear-to-ear missionaccomplished smile on his face.)
At the end of each night’s search for new office space, Woodell and I
would always have a big belly laugh about the whole debacle. Most nights
we’d wind up at some dive bar, giddy, almost delirious. Before parting we’d
often play a game. I’d bring out a stopwatch and we’d see how fast Woodell
could fold up his wheelchair and get it and himself into his car. As a former
track star, he loved the challenge of a stopwatch, of trying to beat his
personal best. (His record was forty-four seconds.) We both cherished those
nights, the silliness, the sense of shared mission, and we mutually ranked
them among the solid gold memories of our young lives.
Woodell and I were very different, and yet our friendship was based on a
selfsame approach to work. Each of us found pleasure, whenever possible, in
focusing on one small task. One task, we often said, clears the mind. And
each of us recognized that this small task of finding a bigger office meant we
were succeeding. We were making a go of this thing called Blue Ribbon,
which spoke to a deep desire, in each of us, to win. Or at least not lose.
Though neither of us was much of a talker, we brought out a chatty streak
in each other. Those nights we discussed everything, opened up to each
other with unusual candor. Woodell told me in detail about his injury. If I
was ever tempted to take myself too seriously, Woodell’s story always
reminded me that things could be worse. And the way he handled himself
was a constant, bracing lesson in the virtue, and value, of good spirits.
His injury wasn’t typical, he said. And it wasn’t total. He still had some
feeling, still had hopes of marrying, having a family. He also had hopes of a
cure. He was taking an experimental new drug, which had shown promise in
paraplegics. Trouble was, it had a garlicky aroma. Some nights on our officehunting expeditions Woodell would smell like an old-school pizzeria, and I’d
let him hear about it.
I asked Woodell if he was—I hesitated, fearing I had no right—happy. He
gave it some thought. Yes, he said. He was. He loved his work. He loved
Blue Ribbon, though he sometimes cringed at the irony. A man who can’t
walk peddling shoes.
Not sure what to say to this, I said nothing.
Often Penny and I would have Woodell over to the new house for dinner.
He was like family, we loved him, but we also knew we were filling a void in
his life, a need for company and domestic comforts. So Penny always wanted
to cook something special when Woodell came over, and the most special
thing she could think of was Cornish game hen, plus a dessert made from