“I would like to see pickleball become an Olympic sport, and to accomplish that we must attract and retain younger players. I see a future where pickleball is regularly taught and played at schools as part of their organized sports activities beginning in grade school, through junior high and high school.”
Those are the thoughts of pickleball philanthropist Claude Blackburn.
Claude joined the workforce in 1962, starting out as a dishwasher at a Chinese restaurant north of Seattle where his mother was working as a waitress, “My mom would help us get jobs because we didn’t have much money and she had a strong work ethic and sense of responsibility. My dad was an alcoholic and he once told me he was proud he had never held a regular job for more than a year.” They would begin their shifts in the early evening hours of Friday and Saturday nights and he would wash dishes until hours past midnight when the rush of patrons showed up after the local bars closed.
He was eleven years old.
That job was part of his life for the next five years. At 16, he moved out of the house and into his car. After two weeks of attempting to attend high school while homeless, he dropped out. And to this day, he doesn’t regret it, “I didn’t fit in, didn’t have any school friends and I didn’t like school. I also didn’t participate in any meaningful way partially because I was so introverted and partially because I worked weekends and didn’t attend games or turn out for sports.”
During the next two years, Claude worked at a series of different jobs and eventually met Mary, his future wife, who he married in 1970. After the birth of their first child, Claude applied for public assistance to help meet basic living costs. They spent nearly a year getting by on $400 a month in welfare payments, which covered food and housing. At the age of 19, his growing family moved 60 miles north to Mount Vernon, Washington, where he began his first business: Claude’s Carpet Care.
Over the next few years, he knocked on 10,000 doors, offered to clean the carpets of anyone who’d open the door, and if they didn’t want that, to wash their windows. By 1978, he owned the most successful carpet cleaning and restoration company in the county. Next, he formed Superlight Flight, an ultralight aircraft sales and flight training company, which turned out to be a complete failure and maybe the best real-world business education to that point. The third, final, and by far most successful business he started was Dri-Eaz Products, a company that manufactures drying and restoration equipment, which he founded in 1980.
For the next 26 years, Claude was a classic workaholic, spending twelve hours a day, six days a week trying to grow his business and innovate the industry, “Dri-Eaz became the largest manufacturer of water damage equipment in North America,” When he sold the company in 2006, “It had grown to 200 employees, 150 distributors and annual sales of over $49M.” He was only 55, but had been working for 44 years. In the meantime, he and his wife Mary (who passed away in 2002) had raised four children. On January 1, 2007, he sent a check to the Department of Social and Health Services for $33,000, reimbursement, including interest and inflation, for the $4,000 worth of welfare and food stamps he’d received when he was just starting out.
Later that year, Claude discovered pickleball, “My first experience with the sport was at Outdoor Resorts Indio in California where they had converted several tennis courts to pickleball. I saw some people playing there who invited me to play and were very encouraging.” Since then, he’s taken quite a few lessons from highly effective trainers, but doesn’t think that his game has improved much in the last few years, “It could be that I’m just not that competitive. You’ll usually find me having a good time playing pickleball, making and receiving jokes. I understand the game, and I generally know what I should do but I’m far more interested in just having fun, enjoying the company and the activity.”
He likes the social element of it better than other paddle sports partially because players are close enough that they can joke and chat while playing and attributes the growth and success of the sport to several reasons, “Pickleball operates on a drop-in basis so it doesn’t require anyone to organize players or schedule a game,” “They get to play with people they’ve never met of all skills and abilities,” “It offers an excellent level exercise for seniors and almost anyone who can walk can play the game and have fun,” and “It accommodates people of all physical abilities and is easier on the body than many other paddle sports.”
He and his wife Annie currently snowbird to Sun City Shadow Hills in Indio, California during the winter months where he plays three to four times a week. They spend the other half of the year in Bellingham, Washington, where outdoor play is more difficult due to the wind and rain. During the summer, he plays two to three mornings a week at nearby Cornwall Park. It was after playing regularly there that he donated to his first pickleball-related project. Two women who’d worked for years to facilitate the local parks system to install courts, Maggi Kriger and Barbara Goebel, mentioned that they were trying to fundraise for ball barrier fences between the existing outdoor courts. He wrote a check for $8,500 and later drafted a document to help guide his future pickleball philanthropy, his Three Pickleball Visions.
Blackburn’s three-pronged pickleball philanthropy plan for Whatcom and Skagit counties includes: (1) the construction of two12-court pickleball sports pavilions, one per county with a contribution of up to 100% of the cost or $1.5M; (2) tennis court to pickleball court conversions, of half of the tennis courts with a contribution of up to 50% of the cost; and (3) the construction of new outdoor pickleball courts, two dozen per county with a contribution of up to 25% of the cost. In exchange for his financial support, he expects to be allowed a certain level of participation in decision-making, based on the level of funding he provides.
So far, Claude’s biggest contribution to pickleball court-creating projects is $1.5 million for the construction of the multi-use gymnasium at the new Skagit Valley Family YMCA in Mount Vernon. Its CEO, Dean Snider, has this to say about its primary benefactor, “Passion for life meets kind generosity. This is Claude. His support for our Y was critical in leading the most successful capital campaign in Skagit history. His passion for the game of pickleball and the community it brings together is really wonderful. Not surprisingly, his support for other community initiatives is equally remarkable.”
He has contributed to two projects since then, the construction of four new outdoor courts at Bender Field in Lynden, which is under construction, and the conversion of two tennis courts six outdoor courts at Hillcrest Park in Mount Vernon, which has been completed. More recently, he’s pledged $1 million for the construction of a proposed 6-court pavilion at Cornwall Park in Bellingham and $1.5 million for a proposed 12-court pavilion on the Skagit Valley College (SVC) Campus in Mount Vernon. Dr. Thomas Keegan, SVC president, writes, “Claude is a very generous member of our local community. He not only is an obvious supporter of pickleball, but his philanthropy extends across many aspects of life in the area. His positive nature, strong desire to do things right, and his generosity will influence pickleball play across the region for generations.”
Claude pulled himself up by his bootstraps, so even after he accumulated enough wealth to give back, he continued to prefer a self-starter philosophy over asking for and accepting assistance. Fortunately, it didn’t take long for him to start thinking like a philanthropist, “Since I sold my business and committed to giving most of my wealth away before I die, I have donated funds to many worthy national and international organizations; however, I’ve learned that I get more joy when I can see the results of my philanthropy and possibly affect the outcomes personally. I spent over 40 years in Skagit County and now I live in Whatcom County, so I support both. I wrote my Three Pickleball Visions because I could see the need for weather-protected pickleball playing surfaces locally.” The reason he continues to contribute is simple, “I like myself best when I am sharing with others, especially when I believe I am making a positive benefit for groups of people. It is a habit that is deeply rooted in my character.”
Note: This is the full-length text of a pared down article published in the October/November 2020 issue of Pickleball Magazine with some bonus photos.