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Obituaries

John Rosekrans, 73; Toy and Sports Brands Tycoon, Arts Patron

November 03, 2001|DENNIS McLELLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

John N. Rosekrans, a San Francisco arts patron and heir to the Spreckels sugar fortune who co-founded a company that produced Frisbees, Power Wheels, Morey Boogie Boards and other famous toy and sports brands, has died. He was 73.

Rosekrans died of heart failure Oct. 27 in Paris, where he and his wife, Dodie, maintained a home.

The great-grandson of sugar company founder Claus Spreckels, Rosekrans was born in San Francisco, where his grandmother, Alma Spreckels, donated the landmark California Palace of the Legion of Honor to the city.

Rosekrans served briefly as a salesman for Dow Chemical Co. before teaming with childhood friend John Bowes to found Kransco Group Co. in 1963.

The company, which became one of America's leading producers of active-play products for children and young adults, began by making floating furniture for swimming pools and other Styrofoam water products.

A decade later, the two men--who had met in third grade, attended Stanford University together and later shared a spacious, one-room office in their San Francisco headquarters--began to branch out.

In 1978, they acquired Morey Boogie Board, which brought them into the field of water sports equipment.

In 1982, they began making toys with the purchase of Wham-O Manufacturing, developer of the Hula Hoop and the Frisbee.

Then they bought Hackey Sack, a small, pellet-filled leather "footbag." They followed that up with the Power Wheels line of battery-operated cars for children.

Rosekrans attributed Kransco's success to aggressively promoting the company's brands. "We have some of the most famous names in the world," he said in 1990.

When the two men decided to retire in 1994 and sell Kransco Group Cos. for an undisclosed sum to Mattel Corp., Kransco had annual sales of $175 million.

Rosekrans served on the board of trustees of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, which includes the California Palace of the Legion of Honor in Lincoln Park near the Golden Gate Bridge and the De Young Museum in Golden Gate Park.

In the early 1990s, he and his wife led a committee of private donors that raised more than $23 million for the renovation of the Palace of the Legion of Honor. The imposing French neoclassical building, which opened in 1924, houses ancient through modern European art.

"It's one thing to inherit a legacy and be protective of it, but he had this resolve to renew it and to modernize it," said Harry Parker, director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

He said Rosekrans was a "rugby player from Stanford and full of juice--he was a great big guy, very strong, very macho--but he took this on as a personal challenge to reinvigorate his grandmother's museum."

Rosekrans and his wife, who lived in a 1917 Pacific Heights mansion in San Francisco, also maintained an estate in nearby Woodside. There, on 120 acres, they established the Runnymede Sculpture Farm.

The internationally known private collection of about 160 pieces of sculpture created by American, English and European artists is visible from Interstate 280, and free tours are given to art groups and schoolchildren.

"John has always bought pieces that he loves," Dodie Rosekrans told Town & Country magazine this year. "He's never asked the advice of curators or dealers. He's just bought what he likes. We've ended up with some wonderful things."

Since Rosekrans' retirement, the couple had spent increasing amounts of time in Europe, where they became renowned for their high-style entertaining and lavish residences.

Their pied-a-terre in Paris was described by Town & Country as "an Orientalist escape by Los Angeles interior designers Tony Duquette and Hutton Wilkinson that quickly became the talk of the town." The same design team later produced a "Venetian fantasy" for the couple in a palazzo along the Grand Canal in Venice.

Rosekrans is survived by his wife; two sons, John Rosekrans of Mill Valley and Peter Rosekrans of Woodside; two stepsons, John Topham and Ned Topham of San Francisco; two brothers, Adolph Rosekrans of Berkeley and Charles Rosekrans of Houston; and four grandchildren.

A private service has been held in Paris, and a date has not yet been set for a private ceremony and burial in San Francisco.

'It's one thing to inherit a legacy and be protective of it, but he had this resolve to renew it and to modernize it.'

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