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By Dennis McLellan
Times Staff Writer

May 2, 2006

Bill Kirschner, who developed the first commercially viable fiberglass skis in the United States and founded K2 Corp., which became the major ski brand in the nation, has died. He was 87.

Kirschner, who was inducted into the U.S. National Ski Hall of Fame in 2001, died April 22 of pneumonia while recovering from intestinal surgery in a Seattle hospital, said his son, Bruce.

Kirschner and his brother, Don, were running a successful manufacturing company on Vashon Island in Puget Sound that made animal splints and fiberglass animal cages in 1961 when Bill Kirschner began thinking of using fiberglass on skis.

"He was always looking for different applications to use his fiberglass technology," Bruce Kirschner told The Times. "He got the idea while skiing on a pair of metal skis in Sun Valley one day. He said, 'I bet I could make a ski out of fiberglass.' "

Kirschner developed the "wet-wrap" process in which fiberglass fabric is wrapped around a light core of wood and baked into shape. His revolutionary manufacturing process produced skis that are considered more responsive and quicker-turning.

He began distributing a limited number of fiberglass skis — 250 pairs — in 1964.

After an initial focus on the recreational market with the K2 Holiday model, K2 moved into competitive ski racing in 1968 with its trademark red, white and blue striped competition skis.

In 1969, Marilyn Cochran won the World Cup giant slalom title on K2 skis — the first World Cup victory on American-made skis. Many other champions, including Phil and Steve Mahre, have competed on K2s.

"The K2 skis enabled skiers to ski faster and be more competitive," Ray Leverton, former curator-manager of the U.S. National Ski Hall of Fame and Museum, told The Times.

"Bill Kirschner was a very important part in the sport of skiing as an entrepreneur and developer in developing better skis," Leverton said.

After a few years, Kirschner separated the growing ski business from Kirschner Manufacturing, and K2 — it was named after the two Kirschner brothers and the famous Himalayan mountain — was incorporated in 1967.

Requiring capital to grow, he sold K2 to Cummins Engine Co. in 1970 but continued as president until becoming chairman in 1976. He retired in 1982.

Kirschner and his wife, Barbara, continued to live on Vashon Island, where the company, now known as K2 Sports, expanded over the last two decades from manufacturing skis only to inline skates, bicycles and snowboards.

Born May 16, 1918, in Seattle, Kirschner earned a degree in mining engineering from the University of Washington in 1939. During World War II, he was exempt from military service because of a temporary swelling in one eye. He spent the war years as a metallurgical engineer at Tacoma Smelting Co. and later was in charge of development and management of a mine in Idaho.

In 1946, he joined his father and brother at Kirschner Manufacturing.

In addition to his son Bruce and his wife of 66 years, Kirschner is survived by his two other children, Bill Kirschner and Becky Pendleton; six grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.