What Works My Dad's Legacy

September 11, 2002
Whenever I flick on a light these days, I think about invention and pride. Ifind myself asking questions like, “What have I created today?” “What haveI done that’s meaningful?” “What am I leaving behind?”

    It’s all because of my father, Clarence Terez. He’s 82 years old now,shaky from a stroke he had 10 years ago. But for 43 years, until his retirementin 1983, he worked as a mechanical engineer and machine designer for GE’s lampdivision. He and his colleagues invented machines that produced incandescentlight bulbs that brought light to homes and offices throughout the world.

    My father’s house—the house he bought with my mother in 1953, the home Igrew up in—is going on the market next week. I’ve just made a final tripthere, walking through empty rooms. The place had been stuffed with itemsaccumulated from more than half a century, but my father chose to keep just ahandful of mementos. Among them: his official documents from the U.S. PatentOffice.

    You can see them yourself at the Patent Office’s Web site. There’s PatentNo. 2,997,186, Lamp Transfer Mechanism, invented by Clarence S. Terez, issued on August 22, 1961. There’s Patent No. 3,046,635, Lamp Base and BulbAssembly Apparatus, July 31, 1962. There are two other patented inventionsdeveloped with a colleague: No. 2,711,760, Top Wire Positioning Mechanism, June28, 1955; and No. 2,910,166, Electric Lamp Making Machine, October 27, 1959.

    The official “inventor’s copies” of these patents are now tucked awayin a business folder. My dad has them at the assisted-living facility where henow lives. If you visit him, it’s almost certain that he’ll pull out thefolder and show you the prized designs. The stroke took away two-thirds of hisvocabulary, but his pride remains fully intact.

    Most folks call him Terry—a nickname derived from his last name because henever was keen on his first name. He still has all of his hair, and most of it’sstill black, combed back with a small daily dab of Groom & Clean. He stillhas brown plastic-rim bifocals, the kind that make smart people look smarter.But his most prominent characteristics are a ready smile and warm personality.Long gone are the R.G. Dun Admiral cigars (he often started the day with astogie at breakfast), the pocket protector, and the well-sharpened pencil tuckedon top of his ear.

    Terry was born in 1920 in the Polish neighborhood of Cleveland. TheDepression punctuated his early teen years, and he got a job picking vegetables,handing over a few coins each day to his mother. While the other kids kickedcans and played stickball, his idea of fun was building things. Give him severalpieces of scrap lumber, a few junk wheels, and soon he’d be coasting along ona scooter.

    One time he built a complete boxing ring. He began it in the colder months,doing his pounding and sawing on the top floor of the family home. By summer,with school over, kids were ready to box—but the top-floor location made forsweltering conditions, and Terry’s mother wasn’t keen on having youngfighters traipsing in and out of the house. So he took it apart, sent it throughthe window piece by piece, and reassembled it outside.

    In a high-school shop class, Terry’s creative mind and natural skillscaught his teacher’s eye. “You could get a job doing this,” the teachertold him one day. “Tomorrow after school I’m going to take you to GeneralElectric.”

    The next day, the two drove together to a nearby GE plant in Cleveland. Terrystayed in the car while his shop teacher went inside, paving the way. Fifteenminutes later the teacher returned and invited him in.

    Terry met a shop foreman, learned about an apprentice opportunity, and saidall the right things. Ten minutes later the teacher drove away, taking home GE’snewest employee.

    When war came, Terry enlisted in the Army, where he worked as a mechanicaldesigner. After his discharge, he went back to work at GE in the lamp division,beginning a career designing machines to make incandescent light bulbs. Heattended college classes, but never got a degree.

    He was always exercising his creativity, always building, ever sketching inthe pad he kept on a nightstand.

    In 1955, Terry attended a GE-sponsored invention workshop. He still has hisdesigns and typed-up notes, all in perfect condition. There’s the sketch ofhis proposed baby-food-warming dish—a plug-in bowl perfect for all thosepostwar babies. And there’s his idea to equip mixers with a wire-bristleattachment—great for cleaning baby bottles in the days before dishwashers.Yes, Terry had kids on his mind. His first of four children had just been born.

    After retiring from GE nearly 20 years ago, my father continued building. Hetook up clock-making, fashioning desk-size replicas of clock towers atNorthwestern University and the University of Michigan—two of his children’salma maters.

    Lately, I’ve been thinking about his long-ago shop teacher, the one who sawthe builder in my father and led him to GE. I’ve been thinking about hismother, who by most accounts was a demanding woman of few words, but whononetheless indulged her son’s early creativity. I’ve been thinking aboutthat invention seminar my father attended in 1955—a little opportunity thatleft a big impression, big enough that he saved the notes for 47 years. I’vebeen thinking about all the young engineers my father coached over the years—theones who secured their first patents thanks to him.

   I’ve been thinking about the pride my dad took in his work, pride thatstill glows like a high-wattage light bulb. And I’m left asking: What have Icreated today? What have I done that’s meaningful? What am I leaving behind?

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