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Friday, June 17, 2005 - Page updated at 12:22 AM

Boeing legend Malcolm Stamper dies

Seattle Times business reporter

Malcolm Stamper, the legendary Boeing executive who led 50,000 people in a race to build the 747, loved children's books and got teary-eyed reading a tale about an orphaned baby moose alone in the wild.

Mr. Stamper, 80, died Tuesday in Seattle of prostate cancer. He will be remembered as a gifted manager who led Boeing's commercial airplane programs at a time when the company was dominating its competition with daring leadership and breakthrough engineering.

After he retired in 1990, he plunged into a completely different venture, starting a children's book publishing company with his wife and his daughter and founding a Boston charity that has distributed free books to hundreds of thousands of children.

Mr. Stamper grew up in Detroit, served in the Navy during World War II and joined Boeing after working for General Motors. In a company with a stern, military-like culture, Mr. Stamper was known as an intellectual with a self-effacing sense of humor.

"How would you like to build an airplane — in fact, the biggest airplane in the world?" late Boeing CEO Bill Allen asked him in 1966, according to "Legend and Legacy," a Boeing history by Robert Serling.

"Mr. Allen, the only airplane I ever built had rubber bands on it," Stamper said.

"Do you or do you not?" demanded Allen.

"I'd welcome the challenge," Mr. Stamper replied.

The 747 was an engineering and management challenge as monumental as the cavernous 400-seat plane. With the company's future riding on the 747, Mr. Stamper led its development and the creation of the world's biggest factory to build it (the Everett plant is the size of 40 football fields). In four years, according to Serling's book, he took a single day off, one Christmas.

He served as president of the company and a member of the board of the directors from 1972 until 1985, when he became vice chairman of the board.

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In an interview with The Seattle Times just before he retired, he acknowledged he hadn't lost his sense of wonder over what Boeing people had accomplished.

"I get an emotional pull when I see one fly," he said. "I go into a trance. It's still very magical to me that people could put all that inanimate stuff — aluminum, copper, wire, rubber and plastic — together and make it fly."

After the exhilaration of the 747 launch came the deep 1969-70 recession, which choked off jetliner sales, and cancellation of the federal Supersonic Transport program. Mr. Stamper and Boeing's CEO, T. Wilson, presided over an economic calamity as Boeing laid off nearly two-thirds of its 101,000 employees.

"The human suffering bothered me," Mr. Stamper said. "We built streetcars and boats, formed a construction company and even tried farming to bring back jobs, but we didn't make any money on them."

But by the late 1970s, the 747 and its smaller sister, the 737, were resounding successes. By the time Mr. Stamper retired in 1990, Boeing seemed to face no serious threat from McDonnell Douglas or from European upstart Airbus. He predicted that the company would remain No. 1 for the foreseeable future.

"Boeing would have to fumble pretty badly to miss," he said.

Mr. Stamper ran for Congress once in Detroit, climbed Mount Rainier, ran marathons, skied in the Arctic and raised six children with his wife of 59 years, Mari. He served on boards at Nordstrom, Chrysler, Esterline and Travelers Insurance, the Seattle Art Museum and the Smithsonian Institution.

Almost as soon as he retired as Boeing vice chairman, Mr. Stamper went into another business — one in which he and his wife had some expertise.

"We had six children, so we read a lot of children's books," Mari Stamper said yesterday.

Their son Jamie, an engineer, had written a book about caring for a blind raccoon named Kitty. Malcolm Stamper loved the story so much he started a company to publish it.

Seattle-based Storytellers Ink, led by Malcolm and Mari Stamper and their daughter Mary Lynam, ended up printing about 40 titles, most of them tales about animals for elementary-age children.

Mr. Stamper then started a foundation and set about raising money and donating some of his own so the books could be given to schoolchildren.

"He thought books about animals conveyed some good messages to children, messages of compassion and respect and responsibility," said Judy Golden, president of the Boston-based foundation Operation Outreach-U.S.A., which has distributed 1.8 million free books and helps about 60,000 children a year.

One book always brought tears to Mr. Stamper's eyes: "Little Annie of Christian Creek," a true story of an orphaned baby moose that managed to survive in the harsh Wyoming wilderness.

"Something about this struck Mal very deeply," Golden said. "He liked to equate the struggle that Little Annie went through to what young girls growing up in difficult situations can do as well."

In addition to his wife, Mr. Stamper is survived by six children, Geoffrey, Kevin, Jamie, David, Mary and Anne; 13 grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

A funeral Mass will be at 10 a.m. tomorrow at St. Joseph's Catholic Church.

Tom Boyer: 206-464-2923 or tboyer@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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