Bill Danner, the force behind Portland's Danner Boots, dies at 97
The company achieved national prominence in the late 1960s when Danner designed a lightweight hiking boot, the Mountain Light, which Backpacker Magazine in 1973 called 'close to our ideal hiking boot.' The company says sales soared as the boot was picked up my major sporting goods retailers and continued to receive positive reviews in outdoor recreation magazines.
Bill Danner, who took his father's struggling local bootmaking business and transformed it into one of the country's most respected outdoor footwear brands, died Dec. 24 in Milwaukie. He was 97.
According to a statement from the company, Danner and his brother John bought the Danner Shoe Mfg. Co., a small Portland business with six employees, from their father after returning home from military service in 1945. The company was deeply in debt and the brothers slowly brought it back into profitability with a product line that included heavy caulk boots for loggers and specialized boots for hunters and smoke jumpers. John left the company in 1956 to pursue a career in law.
"My dad was always a gentle and kind man. And it's always intrigued me that this gentle and kind man could be both a successful businessman and a military hero," says Danner's son David, chairman of the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission.
The company achieved national prominence in the late 1960s when Danner designed a lightweight hiking boot, the Mountain Light, which Backpacker Magazine in 1973 called "close to our ideal hiking boot." The company says sales soared as the boot was picked up my major sporting goods retailers and continued to receive positive reviews in outdoor recreation magazines.
"It was at a time there was a lot of interest in the outdoors and he designed a boot that was a very comfortable boot. I have a pair right now that I have had for going on 20 years. Backpacker Magazine in 1973 called it "its ideal hiking shoe" and ever since then, word of mouth got it going, big retailers started picking it up and things started going well for Danner shoe," says David.
A modern version of that boot was re-released in 2014 in conjunction with the release of the hit movie "Wild," in which Reese Witherspoon's character wears the boots (and tosses them over a mountainside) as she hikes the length of the Pacific Crest Trail.
"It was a thrill. Especially because the boot they used were a modern version of a boot my dad designed. So to see that boot being worn by Reese Witherspoon and realize my father was a fashion god back in the 1970's," says David.
In 1980, Danner made front-page news in Portland when he made a custom pair of size-31 boots for Tuy Hoa, a 25-year-old elephant at the Portland Zoo suffering from a foot infection.
"He got a call from the Portland Zoo. They had an old aging, elephant and she had a foot infection and they couldn't figure out how to keep her foot dry.
So they asked him if he could make a pair of boots for her and he said, sure. And it was an engineering marvel. I remember the photo of him sitting on his shoe salesman stool underneath the elephant measuring the foot and designing the thing. I think they used truck tires for the soles. And they stitched together some uppers and put the Danner logo on it and Tuy Hoa had a pair of boots!" says David.
All eight of Danner's childen earned pocket money by working for the business.
"I rounded insoles. I sold shoes in the retail store in the front of the factory. I folded boxes when I was 7 or 8," says David.
Danner sold the business in 1983. LaCrosse Footwear Inc. acquired Danner Boots in 1994. It was then acquired in 2012 by the Japanese company ABC-MART. Danner Boots continues to operate out of its headquarters in Portland.
"The business was getting too big. And he thought it was getting too complex. He was really not comfortable with what he would consider high finance, and just stepped back. It was a good time. He and my mom wanted to travel and settle down a little bit. It was just the right time," David said.
In retirement, Danner and his wife, Miriam, travelled extensively, visiting and often volunteering in more than 35 countries. He most recently went on safari in Botswana in 2009 at the age of 89, the company says.
"My dad helped a shoe company in Honduras on an exchange program. He and mom did a lot of teaching and volunteering around the world," David said.
William Charles Danner was born in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, in 1919, and moved to Portland in 1937, when his father decided to relocate his company. He attended the University of Portland, graduating in 1941, and during the next three years flew 50 missions over Europe as an Army Air Corps B-17 engineer and top turret gunner.
Miriam Danner, his wife of 63 years, died Nov. 4. He is survived by seven of his eight children, 19 grandchildren, 17 great grandchildren, and one great great grandchild.
"I think that he had spent 63 Christmases with my mother and didn't want to be without her on the 64th," says David.