My grandfather, who was known by the nickname “Incredipete,” passed away two nights ago. I don’t want to dwell on the end, though. I’d rather talk about some of the good memories I have, and some of the things I learned from him.
He grew up here in Kansas City, and had quite a few experiences. He fought in World War II, a naval machinists mate on the USS Minneapolis in the Pacific. After the war, he worked for several companies, including Bendix who was working on components of nuclear weapons at the time. After becoming a certified manufacturing engineer, he served as president of the National Tool & Manufacturing Association and founded two successful businesses manufacturing high tech medical and aerospace products.
If you were to have asked him, I think he would have told you he was an inventor… and that’s what he truly enjoyed. He designed and engineered a medical device (sorry, no specifics – patent and contract restrictions) that has saved countless lives, likely millions, and is still in production to this day… in fact, over this past 8 months I’ve had the privilege of helping to manage his company making that very device.
During that time, he and my grandmother also worked as foster parents, taking special cases (drug addicted infants, abused children, etc.). Over 30 years of foster parenting, they had more than 400 foster children in their home, many for multiple years. They were chosen as the national foster family of the year in 1994, and were the Kansas state foster family of the year that same year.
What’s interesting is that as I remember back, those accomplishments, while impressive to me as an adult, aren’t what really sticks with me. I didn’t know the first thing about medical devices, aerospace, or manufacturing when I was a kid. What I did know was that my grandfather loved to teach me how to work with my hands. He had forgotten more about building, fixing, and “jerry-rigging” things than I’ll ever know.
When I was young, he came over and built a house in our back yard, for my sister and I to play in. We referred to it as a “playhouse” but that’s not really doing it justice. It was literally… a house. It was just smaller than the one we actually lived in. It was so big that the city actually gave us trouble about it. When I got older, I sheetrocked it and added electricity. It was quite the little accomplishment.
I also remember completely destroying the competition with my science projects. To give you an idea… my science project in 1989 was “Thermoelectric Cooling Applications” in which I developed (ok, he developed while I watched) a thermoelectric cooling helmet intended for the military. It was based on the Peltier Effect which basically means when a current is run through a ceramic plate, one side gets hot, and the other gets cold. You vent the heat and use the cold for the application, or vice versa. I got first place.
And you’ll find that technology built into personal “cooling” devices at Sharper Image. Yup… thermoelectric in action. We did it first. Just saying. Oh yeah, the military also uses the technology now… oh yeah, so does Nascar.
I remember him always fixing everything… there wasn’t anything he couldn’t fix. I once watched him install a new stove for my mom, and he sliced his arm on a sharp edge. That’s when he taught me the first lesson of home improvements…. “If you aren’t bleeding, you’re not fixing anything.” Even after his health started to decline, he was always looking for something to fix. He came to my housewarming party two years ago, and immediately found a defective hinge on my cabinet door, which he promptly fixed with his pocket knife and a fork. (And cut his hand, proving once again that if you aren’t bleeding, you aren’t fixing anything.)
His legacy could be inventing a device that has saved and is still saving countless lives. His legacy could be the hundreds of foster children he took in and cared for. I wonder to myself how many of those children appreciate the sacrifice my grandparents made to care for them. I wonder if people who have been saved from a painful death by his inventions ever stop to think about the fact that someone cared enough to create and build that device that saved them.
He didn’t expect any thanks for his contributions to making the world a better place. Maybe that’s what ultimately makes a person worthy of being thanked. Maybe he knew that…