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Jake Burton, whose Burton Snowboards company helped popularize the sport, dies at 65

Mr. Burton in Stowe,Vt., with one of his boards in 1997.
Mr. Burton in Stowe,Vt., with one of his boards in 1997.Jim Davis/Globe staff/File

As a prep school student, Jake Burton was riding a Snurfer — a precursor to the snowboard — when his hand slammed into a tree, fracturing a finger. That was a lucky break for what became the still-growing snowboarding industry.

Tinkering over the next several years with the design of the Snurfer, which gave standing riders little control, Mr. Burton created prototypes of what would be manufactured by Burton Snowboards — the company he founded. Though he built his operation into a major player in a multibillion-dollar industry, and helped change the face of sports on slopes, he shrugged off suggestions that he had glimpsed winter’s future early on.

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“When I started the company, I had no idea this would be done at ski areas the way it is today, or in the Olympics,” he told the Globe in 2002. “So I give myself much more credit for persevering through the tough times than for having a vision of where this sport was going.”

Mr. Burton, who had announced earlier this month that he had been diagnosed with a recurrence of cancer, died Wednesday in Burlington, Vt., according to e-mail sent to the company’s staff. He was 65.

Often referred to as the godfather of snowboarding, Mr. Burton was a board chairman who wanted to keep the sport faithful to its outsider origins.

“I just saw snowboarding as an alternative to skiing and the expense,” he told the Globe in 1997. “It was just a back-hill kind of thing. That’s how we used to go boarding in the beginning.”

Even when his company was drawing an estimated one-third of consumer spending on snowboarding, and was sponsoring numerous Olympians, Mr. Burton was seen as the kind of iconic figure anyone would aspire to join on the slopes.

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“He’s like the cool dad of the sport,” Shaun White, a three-time Olympic gold medalist and one of snowboarding’s most recognizable figures, told The New York Times in 2015.

Mr. Burton never minded when his employees arrived late on a day of fresh snow. He knew where they were and knew they were only emulating the company’s founder. He always tried to snowboard 100 days each year.

“If you get in a couple of runs in the morning, you can work until midnight,” he told the Times in 2003.

Mr. Burton’s birth name was John Burton Carpenter, though for public purposes he went by Burton after launching his company in 1977 in Londonderry, Vt. The company now has its headquarters in Burlington, Vt.

“He thought Burton Snowboards sounded better than Carpenter Snowboards, and he wanted to honor his maternal grandmother, whose surname was Burton. She had left him a small sum to start the company,” Donna Carpenter, the company’s co-CEO and Mr. Burton’s wife, wrote in the Times in 2012.

Mr. Burton “was our founder, the soul of snowboarding, the one who gave us the sport we all love so much,” John Lacy, who shares the chief executive title and duties, said in an e-mail to employees.

Born in 1954, Mr. Burton grew up in Cedarhurst, N.Y., outside of New York City on Long Island.

Mr. Burton attended the Brooks School in North Andover and the Marvelwood School in Connecticut before heading to the University of Colorado at Boulder, where he hoped to join the ski team.

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After a broken collarbone derailed that plan, he moved back east and studied economics at New York University, graduating with a bachelor’s degree before moving to Vermont and founding his company in his early 20s.

“I was blindly optimistic,” Mr. Burton told Business People-Vermont in 2000.

Supplementing his income by bartending in a lodge at the Stratton Mountain Resort, he refined his designs in a woodworking shop that a ski school’s instructor let him use.

“I worked there every minute I wasn’t working at the restaurant,” Mr. Burton told the Globe in 2002. “I was making prototypes.”

In her New York Times article, Donna Carpenter recalled that they met at a New Year’s Eve party while she was in college. In the company’s early years, she wrote, “we were broke initially and led a rustic lifestyle, moving our bed from the third floor of our house to the first to be near the wood stove when it got really cold.”

The company established operations in Europe in the 1980s, and the couple lived there for a few years. Along with tapping into the international market early, the company created a women’s leadership initiative for employees, along with learn-to-ride centers for potential female customers, wrote Carpenter, who has held titles including president and chief financial officer.

She and Burton have three sons — George, Taylor, and Timi. Information about other survivors was not immediately available.

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In his e-mail to employees, Lacy said details about a celebration of Mr. Burton’s life would be announced, and that “I’d encourage everyone to do what Jake would be doing tomorrow, and that’s riding. It’s opening day at Stowe, so consider taking some turns together, in celebration of Jake.”

Mr. Burton initially was diagnosed with testicular cancer in 2011. In addition, he had been paralyzed for several weeks in 2015 and hospitalized in intensive care after being diagnosed with Miller Fisher syndrome, a rare variant of Guillain-Barre syndrome. He recovered, and his experiences were chronicled in a New York Times article late that December.

Though the effects diminished over a few months, Mr. Burton had a tracheotomy, was fed through a tube, and spent time at a rehabilitation center in Boston.

“He changed, but he’s not the type who needed a wake-up call on how to live,” his wife told the Times. “Nobody needed this less than Jake.”

Mr. Burton always noted that he didn’t come up with the idea of snowboarding — earlier versions of the boards emerged decades ago — but he was credited with grasping its potential and appeal.

“I watched skiing lose its youth culture,” he told the Times in 2003. “And as long as I’m around, we won’t make that mistake.”

Although his sport has yet to eclipse its older, better established competition, he predicted in the 1997 Globe interview that “eventually, boarding will be bigger than skiing. I think the sensation that snowboarding offers is simply more fun.”

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Indeed, on the cusp of snowboarding becoming an Olympic event in 1998, he emphasized the independence that attracted adherents.

“Accepting and recognizing individualism is what this sport is built on,” he told the Globe. “It’s about individual expression, how each one relates to winter and snow.”

Even as his company sponsored many of snowboarding’s top team competitors — including White, Kelly Clark, and Chloe Kim, all US Olympic gold medalists — Mr. Burton determinedly went about clocking 100 days a year on the slopes, reveling in his own individualism.

“The biggest rush for me continues to be the sensation of riding through tight Vermont trees just a little too fast,” he said in 1997.

“On one hand, you don’t know what’s coming up next, but if you’re on, you’ve got so much rhythm that you can absorb anything that comes your way,” Mr. Burton added. “It’s also real quiet in the woods, and the whole experience is very private, which only adds to the intensity of it all.”


Material from the Associated Press was used in this report. Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.