Howard Head, inventor, philanthropist, dies at 76

March 04, 1991|By Albert Sehlstedt Jr.

Howard Head, a Baltimore philanthropist who made millions developing a revolutionary, lightweight ski and an oversized tennis racket to improve his performance in both sports, died last night at Johns Hopkins Hospital. He was 76.

Mr. Head suffered complications after quadruple bypass surgery last month, and his condition deterioriated rapidly.

He left his body to Hopkins for medical research.

Arrangements for a memorial service were incomplete last night.

A design engineer at the Glenn L. Martin Co.'s Middle River aircraft plant during World War II, Mr. Head later turned his engineering skills to sporting equipment because of a frustration with his own shortcomings on the ski slopes and the tennis courts.

He also became known for his support of cultural and medical institutions.

He financed entirely the Howard Head Sports Medical Center in Vail, Colo., served as a trustee of the Baltimore Museum of Art and was a generous contributor to Center Stage.

Last month, Center Stage dedicated the Head Theater -- three floors above the Pearlstone Theater in its building on North Calvert Street.

Mr. Head and his wife, Martha Becker Fritzlen Head, had recently pledged $1 million to the $13 million campaign for Center Stage.

"He was a fascinating guy, in that you could never guess what was on his mind," said Hal Donofrio, a longtime friend and business associate who is president of the advertisingfirm of Richardson, Myers & Donofrio.

"He had an absolute belief in himself," Mr. Donofrio said, and despite a certain "toughness," he "was just as warm as he could be."

He had an abiding interest in art and the theater, all the while refusing to accept his own limitations in sports, Mr. Donofrio observed. In regard to tennis, he suggested that Mr. Head's difficulty with the game might have been due simply to a weak wrist.

Indeed, Mr. Head's success and fame in the world of sports were the result, according to his own analysis, of a personal conclusion that hispoor athletic performance was the result of inferior equipment rather than meager ability.

"I was humiliated and disgusted by how poorly I skied," he once said, referring to a time in the 1940s when he attempted to navigate thesnow-covered hills of Vermont.

Rather than trying to correct his own mistakes, Mr. Head blamed the "clumsy, heavy" wooden skis, as he put it, that "twisted underfoot and were hard to turn."

"Not knowing any better, I assumed I could make a better ski out of aircraft materials than wood. It turned out to be harder than I thought. It took 40 versions before I came up with the ski that would work, and that was three years later."

Much the same story preceded his development of the oversized Prince tennis racket, which some purists of the sport compared to a snowshoe or spaghetti strainer when it first hit the market.

Mr. Head, a gangling 6-feet, 4-inches tall, had taken up tennis at the age of 60.

"I had trouble with the equipment in that I found the racket twisted in my hand on an off-center hit," he explained. "And since I couldn't improve my own athletic skills, I set out to design a racket that would be more stable to an off-center hit. After various experiments, the Prince racket emerged."

Snowshoe or not, it was another Head winner.

In 1980, Sports Illustrated reported that at least 700,000 tennis players were using the Prince despite a waiting time of three months, in some cases, to get delivery.

He sold the racket company to Chesebrough-Ponds Inc., maker of beauty aids and deodorants, for $62 million in 1982. In 1971, he had sold his ski company, then the largest in the United States, to AMF Inc., manufacturer of bicycles and a diverse line of other products, for $16 million.

Mr. Head was born in Philadelphia July 31, 1914, the son of Dr. Joseph Head, who held degrees in both medicine and dentistry.

The younger Mr. Head earned a bachelor's degree in engineering sciences at Harvard University in 1936, dabbled in journalism and motion picture editing for a while and joined the Martin company's engineering department in 1939 as the United States was grooming itself to become the "arsenal of democracy" in the approaching conflict with the Axis powers.

After the war, he was riding a train back from a Vermont resort when he fell into conversation with an Army officer, and the talk turned to "why skis weigh so much," he recalled.

"I was a design engineer with theGlenn L. Martin Co. at the time, and so weight-saving as applied to aircraft was a familiar idea," he said.

"But I had never considered it in relation to skis. It interested me."

A new material called honeycomb, which was both light and stiff, was being used in Martin airplanes at that time, along with a promising aluminum alloy.

Imbued with the confidence of a neophyte, he left the aircraft company and set up shop in the 1200 block of Morton Street, a byway on the western edge of downtown Baltimore, to use these new materials in the manufacture of light, more maneuverable skies.

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