Eight Bells: Meade Gougeon
Published on August 29th, 2017
Meade Gougeon, a sailing legend and industry innovator who pioneered the use of epoxies for boatbuilding, all while creating a culture of giving back at his Bay City (MI) business, died Sunday, Aug. 27. He was 78. The cause was skin cancer.
While he touted a distinguished sailboat racing career, Gougeon was perhaps best known for making other sailors and boat builders look good with his special marine epoxy.
Gougeon and his late brother Jan’s home-baked epoxy was their secret weapon when building their race-winning boats in the early 1960s. The brothers kept it a secret from competitors for about five years, but word eventually got out.
The epoxy was born from a relationship with Herbert Dow, an avid sailor and the grandson of the Dow Chemical Co. founder. The Gougeons introduced Dow to iceboating, and in return, Dow connected the Gougeon’s with chemists in the chemical company’s epoxy lab to help develop resins and hardeners that could be used as an adhesive and coating.
“When it became obvious that we had an opportunity to make this epoxy technology available to others, it really became a revolution, especially for wooden boats, which were declining quickly because of carbon fiber,” Gougeon said in a 2015 interview with The Bay City Times-MLive.
In 1969, the Gougeon brothers, including Joel Gougeon, a former state senator, decided to go into business, selling ice boats under the Gougeon name and their world-class epoxy, later called West System Epoxy. Before West System, builders used ineffective materials to glue boats together that required clamping parts together for weeks at a time. West System filled all the gaps and dried overnight.
“It was huge,” said DN Iceboat champion Ron Sherry. “People use that epoxy for doing everything on the boat. You can always count on it.”
The epoxy and Gougeon’s engineering technology translated to other areas outside of boatbuilding, including Jon Staudacher’s Bay City airplane company. From 1988 to 1996, Staudacher built 36 airplanes with wings that used the same technology Gougeon implemented for wind turbine blades, essentially minimizing any risk for failure.
“The Gougeon brothers aren’t responsible for my career in aircraft building, but they are certainly responsible for my success,” Staudacher said. “I might have attempted it without them, but they were key to the success.”
The Gougeon Brothers’ work extended beyond Earth. In the late 1970s, they manufactured laminated wood used in NASA’s Wind Energy Project Office. In 2004, Scaled Composite used Gougeon Pro-Set epoxy to develop its cutting-edge spacecraft vehicles.
Up until recently, Meade Gougeon served as the company’s chief tester of new epoxy products as the business continues to grow. More than 50 people are employed today by the business.
In 2015, Meade and Jan Gougeon were inducted into the National Sailing Hall of Fame, the first inductees from Michigan, joining Olympic medalists and other accomplished sailors.
As Gougeon built his trailblazing business, he not only understood the importance of giving back to the community, but made it a point to instill a philanthropic attitude in his employees.
About 15 years into the business, Gougeon created an employee bonus program through stock in the company. The employees then decided how much of the profits to donate to charity and invest in local projects. Over the years, the company heavily invested in the United Way of Bay County and other area nonprofits.
Gougeon took the program a step further and later created a committee with rotating leaders who made decisions on which charities money would be sent to.
“It was probably the best idea I’ve ever had,” Gougeon said in 2015. “All of a sudden, you not only have employees giving to great causes, but giving to causes that maybe you wouldn’t have ever thought to give to. Each employee was aware of different problems and issues in the community, and it really gave us an opportunity to address a lot of things.”
Gougeon profits were donated to projects like the Dow Bay Area Family Y, the Alice and Jack Wirt Public Library and the Bay Area Riverwalk.
In 2015, Gougeon was honored for his philanthropic work with the Peggy Rowley Community Enrichment Award.
His wife Janet said her husband had an opportunity to sell the business or move it elsewhere in the country on several occasions, but always chose to stay in Bay City.
“He wanted to provide jobs here and I certainly always respected that about him,” she said. “He was a great believer in this community.”
Meade Alger Gougeon was born Sept. 25, 1938, to Meade W. and Elizabeth Mae Gougeon. His father ran a used car dealership; his mother raised the couple’s three sons and daughter Pamela.
When he was a teenager, Gougeon’s father died of a heart attack on Christmas morning, forcing him into a leadership role in the household, his brother Joel said.
“He was a natural leader of our family,” Joel Gougeon said. “He gave all of us some good direction to follow.”
Meade Gougeon met his future wife, Janet Vaughn, while a senior at Handy Middle School, where he excelled as a record-setting swimmer. He went on to study at Western Michigan University and compete on the swim team there before enlisting in the U.S. Army. After Vaughn graduated from Handy, she moved west to California, but returned to Bay City years later. She reunited with Meade and the couple married in April 1971. This past spring, they celebrated their 46th wedding anniversary.
The couple went on to raise 10 children. Before his death, he told family not to acknowledge in obituaries that seven of their children were adopted, his wife said. The couple also had 14 grandchildren.
He was predeceased in death by his parents, sister Pamela, brother Jan and son Gary.
Meade Gougeon lived life to the fullest up until his death. This past March, he competed in the Everglades Challenge in Florida, finishing first in his class in the 300-plus-mile-long competition from Tampa Bay to Key Largo in the sailing canoe he built named “Elderly Care.”
“His children were concerned and asked why I was letting him do it, but he’s going to do what he wants,” Janet Gougeon said. “The sailing world was his love and passion.”
Meade Gougeon described the race as “three days of high winds, headwinds and rough seas. It was wet and bumpy.” More than half of the other 108-boat fleet dropped out of the race, but Gougeon was one of the 51 remaining to cross the finish line.
Gougeon also won the race in 2014. Next year, a sailor will compete in the competition in a boat designed by Gougeon, his wife said.
Months after the race, he traveled with his wife to Ireland to celebrate their 46th wedding anniversary.
Gougeon didn’t want a formal funeral, his family said. A private memorial service is scheduled for next month.
More photos here.