Jerry Pendleton, founder of SkyTrans Manufacturing, dies at 79

By | January 9, 2018

CONTOOCOOK, N.H.Jerry Pendleton, founder and president of SkyTrans Manufacturing, LLC, passed away peacefully in his sleep on Dec. 28. He was 79.

A graduate of the University of New Hampshire, Pendleton started his career with road, bridge and all-around contractor O.D. Hopkins in 1960, eventually becoming president of O.D. Hopkins Associates, Inc., in 1988. Under his leadership, the company expanded beyond the aerial tramway business into roller coasters and water rides — becoming the world’s largest manufacturer by volume of rides including log flumes, shoot the chutes and raft rides.

In 2002, Pendleton founded SkyTrans, where he continued to pursue his love of the amusement industry with his sons.

Pendleton was born in Westerly, R.I., on Nov. 13, 1938. His family lived there for an additional two years before leaving for the small town of Contoocook, N.H., where young Jerry spent much of his childhood working on a large dairy farm across the street from his family’s residence.

In 1952, during his freshman year at Hopkinton High School, he met his future wife, Sylvia Allen, on a Ferris wheel at the Hopkinton State Fair; they married six years later while Pendleton was attending the University of New Hampshire. They raised five sons born between 1959 and 1974 on an eight-acre property given to them by Sylvia’s mother.

Although Pendleton earned a degree in dairy science, his meeting of O.D. Hopkins in 1960 would change his trajectory. For Hopkins’ fledgling company, the enthusiastic college grad pumped out septic tanks, drove trucks and operated backhoes. It was the start of what became an increasingly ambitious working relationship and lifelong friendship.

In 1962, Hopkins purchased designs and drawings of the John A. Roebling’s Sons Co. aerial tramway business, shifting his focus to the design, manufacture and installation of chairlifts for the local ski industry. Over the next two decades, Pendleton worked his way up in the company, which by the early 1970s had begun selling its aerial tramways to the amusement industry.

Of his working relationship with Hopkins, who died in 2010, Pendleton recalled to Amusement Today: “We rarely disagreed on things, and I knew that it never paid to argue with him because 99 percent of the time he was right. He told me once that my job was to be the front man, as he was more than content to design things — and that was how we functioned for many years.”

Hopkins concurrently operated tramways at major state fairs around the country under the name SkyFair Inc. Pendleton later purchased SkyFair from Hopkins, and together with close friend and co-owner Don DiGirolamo and so-called “adopted son,” Tracy Shedd, he grew the operation to what it is today.

There were milestones along the way.

In the mid-1970s, as vice president of O.D. Hopkins Associates, Pendleton connected with Paul Roads, founder of Wonderland Park in Amarillo, Texas, and the park’s president, Paul Borchardt, developing a very close working relationship with them. Together they planned — usually on a napkin, with plenty of margaritas nearby — and built a total of eight rides at Wonderland between 1976 and 1996, including a sky ride and the first Hopkins-produced log flume ride. It led to Hopkins becoming the largest manufacturer of water rides worldwide.

Of the comfortable working relationship Wonderland had with Pendleton and the Hopkins company during those years, Borchardt shared with AT: “They were just common people, not high-pressure salesmen. They manufactured it, produced it and then we bought it in a one-on-one deal — with a handshake. Whatever we did, we wanted it to be easy and not complicated. We’d have drinks and eat together, and we’d talk about our industry. We became really good friends.”

Pendleton was “easygoing, a good guy,” said Borchardt. “Sometimes I’d tell Jerry we couldn’t pay [for a project] right at this minute, and he’d say, ‘Well, we can wait until the end of the season.’ And I’d say, ‘No, we didn’t mean until the end of the season. We’ve just got to cash a CD.’ And he’d say, ‘Go ahead. Whenever you can, send it.’”

With a laugh, Borchardt added: “That’s how we always did everything — there was no pressure with anything we did together. Jerry really helped us create the family-oriented attractions we needed.”

Pendleton was known to have described Wonderland “our Skunk-Works facility,” where all new Hopkins ride designs were thoroughly tested and debugged. Among the other rides produced for the park by Hopkins were the Texas Tornado steel looping roller coaster, the Sky Rider monorail, the Shoot the Chute flume ride, the Pipeline Plunge wet/dry waterslide and the modest Rattlesnake River Raft Ride.

During his O.D. Hopkins years, Pendleton was involved with hundreds of projects for other parks and major theme park chains, including Splash Mountain at Disneyland, Paul Bunyon Log Flume at Mall of America and the Log Ride at Warner Bros. Movieland in Australia. The company’s projects spanned the globe, with installations in Japan, China, Thailand, Indonesia, Mexico, Canada, South Africa, the U.K. and more. He was active in the original AREA and the beginning of AIMS safety associations.

In 2000, Hopkins Rides was merged with the French ride company Reverchon. The Hopkins brand later became affiliated with Martin & Vleminckx before being purchased by its current owner Whitewater West. In 2002, Jerry and his sons launched SkyTrans Manufacturing — focusing on water rides and bringing aerial tramways to zoos.

Pendleton observed that many older ski lifts were being replaced with newer models, and that some in the amusement, zoo and ski industries needed a people mover that would be high capacity (and for zoos, not disruptive to the animals). His company found a way to repurpose and refurbish existing equipment to ANSI B-77 Tramway code and ASTM standards in order to provide an economic solution for smaller parks and zoos.

SkyTrans has since installed rides in more than 10 locations across the U.S. It additionally supplies and fashions replacement parts and non-destructive testing devices for a variety of rides, including those manufactured by O.D. Hopkins Associates and others from manufacturers no longer in business.

In recent years, Pendleton gradually had been removing himself from the day to day activities of both SkyTrans and SkyFair, thus preparing his sons and colleagues for the succession of the companies’ leadership. At the time of his passing, he was en route to the warmer climes of South Florida.

“He did not make it to his final destination, but he died the busy travelin’ man he was,” said his family in a statement.

Recalling how much Pendleton enjoyed spending time in Daytona Beach, one of his best friends in the city, Theresa Doan of Doan Management, told AT: “Jerry loved Daytona Beach Bike Week, NASCAR races, New Year’s Eve celebrations — and Bud Light. He led the Bike Week contest team to reach new heights and raise thousands of dollars for the local Boys and Girls Club.

“Jerry was adept at managing all phases of special events, be it writing contracts, consulting on insurance, coaxing temperamental entertainers or engineering structural improvements. Mostly, Jerry loved people, meeting and befriending all — customers, employees, entertainers, vendors and members of law enforcement — with his cheerful happy countenance.”

Pendleton is predeceased by his wife, Sylvia Allen Pendleton; son, Frank Pendleton (stillborn); father, Lewis Pendleton; mother Helen Tulley Pendleton; and sister, Judith Pendleton Bline. He is survived by his sons Jerry, Jr., John, James, Daniel and Matthew, plus 11 grandchildren, one great grandchild, and 11 nieces and nephews.

A remembrance of Jerry will be held later this spring for his family and many friends from around the world.