Remembering Jim Lea, longtime Mountaineer and Therm-a-Rest Inventor

The Mountaineers is deeply saddened by the loss of one our longtime members and most generous donors: James M. Lea - 66-year member, Washington state native, engineer, and inventor. Jim passed away on December 20, 2016.
Mary Hsue Mary Hsue
Mountaineers Director of Development
January 07, 2017

Giving back is what Mountaineers do best. In my nearly six years at The Mountaineers I can’t remember a day when I haven't experienced or observed an act of giving time, talent, or treasure from a member. Each of these moments warms my heart and brings a smile to my face. One act stands above nearly all for me – a generous major gift from Jim Lea.

I had the pleasure of getting to know Jim over the past few years. He was a true Washingtonian, born in Tacoma in 1920 and a graduate of Stadium High School and the University of Puget Sound. He also took The Mountaineers basic climbing course in 1950. After experiencing the biggest Boeing layoff in company history in 1971, Jim went on to invent the Therm-a-Rest air mattress and co-found Cascade Designs.

Jim gave generously to The Mountaineers because of our mission, values, culture, volunteers, and efforts to get young people in the outdoors. He said, “This is my way of giving back. The Mountaineers is a good group of people. I’d like to see the club perpetuate.” When I shared a vision of The Mountaineers doing what we do 100 years from now, he responded, “Why not more than 100 years?”

Jim’s gift enables The Mountaineers to advance our efforts to strengthen a volunteer culture, get youth outside, be fierce protectors of our wild places, and publish books to advance our mission. His generosity will ensure The Mountaineers can take the next steps toward a vision of transforming lives and protecting the iconic places of the Pacific Northwest and beyond for - as Jim inspired - more than 100 years from now.

The Mountaineers is honored to host a Gratitude Reception in memory of Jim Lea on Sunday, January 15 from 1–3 pm at the Seattle Program Center. We will be honored to celebrate his life with those he loved and impacted the most. Please register to attend. 

Jim Lea Gratitude RSVP

More about Jim's Legacy

I wrote about Jim Lea in the Retro Rewind section of Mountaineer magazine in 2013. I'd like to share that article with you now.

Longevity in The Mountaineers

In the few years with The Mountaineers, I’ve discovered our members live long and rich lives. Case in point: the 275 invitations we mailed for our annual luncheon to recognize Mountaineers members who have maintained their membership for 50 years or more.

I suspect that member longevity may be the result of decades of living an active lifestyle, following a healthy diet, enjoying adventures with fellow members, or simply ample exposure to fresh mountain air and clean water. Because, looking at the photo of Jim Lea in 1958, rappelling on Sahale Peak wearing Converse hi-tops and without a helmet or harness, it’s safe to say that longevity isn’t due to the current practice of outfitting oneself for safety and in the latest high-tech climbing gear.

Not much climbing gear was available when Jim first learned to climb with The Mountaineers in 1950. Like many 50-year members, he joined to take the Basic climbing course. “Mountaineers' courses were wonderful and outings and climbing trips were fun,” said Jim, “I wish I had time to take more courses or spend time with The Mountaineers.” But he was too busy building a business.

A true Washingtonian

Growing up in the north end of Tacoma as the youngest of four children, Jim is about as homegrown as it gets. His parents took the family hiking and camping regularly, so he appreciates the benefits of being exposed to the outdoors at an early age. Jim said, “I remember going to Spring Beach on the southwest side of Vashon Island. We went there since I was two years old and almost every year growing up. You can say my parents inspired me to pursue outdoor activities.”

Jim graduated from Stadium High School and got his engineering degree at the University of Puget Sound. Like many engineering graduates, Jim landed a job with Boeing. And like many Boeing engineers in 1971, he was part of the largest layoff in company history.

Inventor and category creator

After 30 years on the job and with lots of time on his hands, Jim used the time to invent things. For him it was an opportunity. He’d saved some money and, he said, "I had ideas about what I wanted to do. I wanted to manufacture something."

Outdoor adventurers worldwide benefited from Jim's use of time to invent. Jim merged his love of the outdoors with his engineering know-how and developed a big idea. If you’ve spent any time sleeping outdoors, you probably slept on the big idea Jim came up with. "The Therm-a-Rest air mattress is my invention," Jim said. That’s right, the Therm-a-Rest pad. The world’s first self-inflating mattress used by outdoor adventurers all over the world. Jim went on to co-found Cascade Designs with his close friend, Neil Anderson and climbing buddy, John Burroughs.

Inspiration to make a commitment

Jim doesn’t do much with The Mountaineers these days, but he says, “I enjoy seeing my friends at the 50-year Member Luncheon. Mountaineers I’ve met and have come to know over the years are nice, good people with great values. A wonderful gang.” Jim reconnected with a few members of his “gang” at the 50-year Member Luncheon in May 2013, where I had the opportunity to thank him for informing us that he chose to leave a bequest for The Mountaineers in his will.

When asked what inspired him to make such a commitment, he answered simply and definitively, “This is my way of giving back. The Mountaineers is a good group of people. I’d like to see the club perpetuate.” He went on to say that, “I like the mission, values and culture, and Mountaineers courses are well conducted by capable people. I appreciate that.”

Jim didn’t volunteer as often as he wanted to because he spent so much time working, but he said, “I know that volunteering is what holds things together.” Jim is happy to hear about the success of The Mountaineers youth programs. He said, “I think it’s wonderful when an organization takes advantage of its capabilities and gets young people involved. I support The Mountaineers efforts to get young people in the out of doors.”

The Mountaineers as family

I’m grateful for Jim’s invention, but I’m also grateful to him for choosing to elevate The Mountaineers to family status by leaving a bequest in his will. I’m grateful to him for caring to further a mission, a culture, and what I believe The Mountaineers produces through challenging people and teaching them how to be safe in the outdoors: better people who value the outdoors and care to make the world a better place. 


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