Born Free Founder John N. Dodgen Dies
Shortly after he founded Born Free Motorcoach in 1969, John N. Dodgen decided to test the company’s first prototype motorhome by driving to British Columbia with his family. They had traveled only 20 miles north of Born Free’s Humboldt, Iowa, factory, when a store clerk told Mr. Dodgen a story that compelled him to turn around.
A schoolteacher had owned a similar vehicle, the clerk said. A tire blew out, the coach flipped, and her 6-year-old son, who was riding in the cab-over, was crushed.
Mr. Dodgen immediately returned to Humboldt, where he and his team rebuilt the prototype with roll bars. In fact, Mr. Dodgen vowed that roll bars would be incorporated into every vehicle his company built.
The story, which appeared on the Born Free blog two years ago, not only illustrates that Mr. Dodgen was a hands-on CEO but also that he cared deeply about the quality of his products and the people who owned them. In addition to being a successful businessman, he was a husband and father, a prolific inventor, an avid fisherman and hunter, and an airplane pilot.
The longtime FMCA family and commercial member died August 29, 2015. He was 89.
He began sharpening his business skills early in life, according to an article in The Messenger, the daily newspaper in Fort Dodge, Iowa. At age 6, the Sapulpa, Oklahoma, native sold radishes door to door. His family moved to Fort Dodge, Iowa, where he had five newspaper routes until age 14. He was hit by a car and laid up for a time, but then he became a carhop and, by age 17, had worked his way up to assistant manager of the drive-in restaurant.
World War II was still being fought when Mr. Dodgen graduated from high school, so he enlisted in the Navy. He sold $10 million worth of war bonds to military personnel and munitions workers. After the war, he and his brothers, Joe and Jack, founded Dodgen Industries, which distributed and later manufactured farm equipment. Their father ultimately became a partner.
In the 1950s, Mr. Dodgen took a leave of absence from the business and earned a bachelor’s degree from Ottawa University in Ottawa, Kansas. In 1961, he attended the Program for Management Development at Harvard Business School.
A downturn in the farming industry led Mr. Dodgen to start Born Free Motorcoach, a longtime FMCA commercial member, C1171. Born Free at first built truck campers. In the 1970s, the company began manufacturing Type C motorhomes.
Mr. Dodgen was not tied to his desk. He frequently attended FMCA conventions. Before the annual meetings at FMCA summer conventions, he would lead the singing of the U.S. national anthem. And about 12 years ago, as his company was about to begin its 36th year in the RV business, he got behind the wheel of a 30-foot Born Free motorhome and embarked on a 10-week, 10,000-mile trip across America to meet current and prospective customers and to train Born Free salespeople at dealerships.
“I want them to know that the guy who started the company and still owns it is accessible and 110 percent involved,” Mr. Dodgen told Family Motor Coaching magazine for a 2004 article.
At each dealership, he fired up his portable barbecue cooker and treated folks to pork tenderloin and baked beans. The cooker was one of his many patented inventions. According to The Messenger, other creations included various pieces of farm equipment, a tomato cage, an adjustable power windshield scraper, a griddle that made pancakes with a hole in the middle, a game called Socketball, and a golf putter that read the slope of a green.
In January 2015, Born Free was sold to HBF Investments of Des Moines, Iowa. The company continues to make Type C motorhomes.
Mr. Dodgen is survived by his wife of 65 years, Wanda, and their four children, 15 grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren.
KOA Sponsors Electric Vehicle Tour
Brian Kent set off on August 24 from his home in Albion, New York, and with help from Kampgrounds of America (KOA), he planned to drive more than 26,000 miles through each of the lower 48 states without using a drop of gasoline.
The former-nutritionist-turned-freelance-writer is driving his electric vehicle, a Nissan Leaf EV, and he expects to stop at least three to four times a day to recharge. Mr. Kent is staying at as many KOA campgrounds along the way as possible, since most KOAs can meet his power requirements and give him a place to rest. While most KOAs and many other locations along Mr. Kent’s route have the desired 50-amp service, he’s carrying adapters to allow him to plug in to traditional power pedestals and outlets.
Mr. Kent plans to plant a tree along the way in each state — hopefully at a KOA — to make his trip have a net negative carbon footprint. He said those trees alone will scrub 100 tons of carbon dioxide in their first 40 years of life.