An RV icon is remembered.
By Terri Blazell
On January 11, 2007, the RVing world lost a hero. John C. Crean, 81, passed away quietly in his Orange County, California, home, surrounded by Donna, his beloved wife of 58 years, and his family. And whether you knew of the man or not, you likely have benefited from his work, since every motorhome made today, regardless of its manufacturer, has John Crean to thank for many of its design features and amenities.
John was born on July 4, 1925. His destiny came calling when his father created a makeshift motorhome on a Model T Ford. A year-long cross-country trip the family made in the vehicle left an indelible impression on the young Crean. In the 1940s, he and Donna began making venetian blinds by hand for RVs. In 1950 they founded the Fleetwood Trailer Company, later known as Fleetwood Enterprises.
At that time, the RV industry was still in its infancy, with much room for innovation and improvement. John Crean was the man to do it, building Fleetwood into one of the largest and most successful RV manufacturers in the world. Forever down-to-earth, even as the CEO of the company, he would attend rallies and while there thought nothing of pulling out his toolbox and making a repair for a customer.
In the 1980s, John’s brainchild, the Bounder, changed the way all RVs are made. Features such as subfloor water tanks that wouldn’t freeze, functional floor plans, and basement storage were revolutionary. The Bounder became the most successful and familiar motorhome of its time.
John Crean lived life to its fullest. He drove race cars, enjoyed yachting, and built and flew model airplanes. He followed his passions with gusto. He co-hosted a cable TV show, “At Home on the Range,” with a neighbor, Barbara Venezia, filming it in his garage on a set he built himself. An irreverent cooking show, it was more about mishaps and having fun than cooking. As he dropped ingredients and caught things on fire, in front of thousands, he taught folks to lighten up and not take life too seriously. A cookbook, At Home on the Range: The Cookbook for the Deranged, was followed by his self-published autobiography, The Wheel and I “” John Crean: Driving Fleetwood Enterprises to the Top in 2000.
He also was an avid woodworker. In the dining room of the Creans’ 18,000-square-foot mansion, an elegant mahogany dining table dominates the room. It was long enough for John and Donna to share a meal with their four children, Johnnie, Andy, Emily, Susan, and their spouses; and their 14 grandchildren and two great-granddaughters. The table’s design and craftsmanship evokes a fine European antique. John could have purchased a hundred tables, but he built this table himself in his own workshop.
His influence on the RV world extended beyond the borders of Fleetwood. In the early 1970s, his son and namesake, Johnnie, was interested in starting his own business. Working together, they spent the spring of 1973 building a 20-foot trailer, the Alfa I. That same summer John helped his son build the factory. “It was like an old-world apprenticeship,” Johnnie reminisced. When Johnnie introduced the first See Ya motorhome, his dad got involved yet again. In 2001, at the age of 76, John took the See Ya on a cross-country trip to New York. Frustrated with the plethora of electronics in the coach, John collaborated with his son to build a simpler version of the See Ya, the Alfa Founder. Alfa is still going strong in Ontario, California, building both luxury fifth-wheels and motorhomes.
RVs remained John’s love even to the end of his life. At 78, struggling with kidney disease and heart disease, he felt he had one more motorhome in him. Along with his daughter, Susan, and her husband, Steve Thomas, he created a new RV company, first called Flounder Motor Homes and later renamed CT Coachworks. Riding around the plant in his wheelchair, he remained involved in every aspect of its development. The Flounder motorhome contained features John believed were important, such as residential-size kitchen appliances. Susan and Steve are continuing the tradition, producing new motorhomes bearing John’s design footprint, now called the Siena.
However, John Crean’s greatest impact was as a humanitarian and philanthropist. Inspired by their minister, the Creans began by tithing 10 percent of their annual income to charity. Eventually their charitable contributions would comprise 50 percent of their income, much of it given anonymously. A recent list of their beneficiaries included the names of more than 300 groups, including churches, hospitals, shelters, and scholarships. The walls of the Crean home are lined with an uncountable number of plaques, and display cases overflow with tokens of gratitude from the charities and lives that were touched because of their generosity. Their estate, Village Crean, has hosted many fundraising benefits.
John Crean’s life and philosophy can best be summed up by longtime friend and current Fleetwood CEO Elden Smith. “Years ago I saved a quote by Clarence Francis (a world-renowned business leader of the 1930s and ’40s) that I believe frames the essence of John’s leadership,” Mr. Smith said. “It says: ‘You can buy a man’s time; you can buy his physical presence at a given place; you can even buy a measured number of his skilled muscular motions per hour. But you cannot buy enthusiasm. You cannot buy loyalty. You cannot buy the devotion of hearts, minds, or souls. You must earn these!”
“John Crean earned our enthusiasm, our loyalty, our minds, and our hearts. We … will never forget him or the things he stood for, and we will be forever grateful.”
John will always be remembered as caring, passionate, and generous. And he will be missed.