Dad set the bar of success too high, as heroes often do

Guest Columnist

I recently toured the mammoth Toyota Motor Manufacturing Indiana (TMMI) plant in Princeton, Ind.

How big is TMMI?

The tour involves boarding a tram.

Need I say more?

At 4.3 million square feet, TMMI is a manufacturing marvel that mixes high-tech robotics with a high-skilled workforce to create Highlander, Sequoia and Sienna.

A vehicle is created from start to finish in about 20 hours. Thousands of vehicles A DAY are made there.

I saw robots and controlled sparks and autonomous carriers (the future is now). I saw teams of employees—thousands work there—who smiled and waved as our two tour trams approached.

About 15 minutes in, the most unexpected of magical things happened.

I noticed several green plastic boxes with clear lids displayed at various work stations.

It took a moment for their purpose to come into my mind’s focus.

Lockout-tagout boxes.

I lost my breath.

This  "lockout-tagout" box is an example of the Saalman Safety System Group Lockout/Tagout Box that Scott's dad patented as a sideline business in 1992. (Photo provided)

Lockout-tagout is a safety procedure used in industry to ensure that dangerous machines are properly shut off and not able to be started up again prior to the completion of maintenance or repair work. The boxes support the procedure. They save lives.

Their sighting came as a happy surprise, leaving me with one thought: dad.

The green boxes were a customized version of the Saalman Safety System Group Lockout/Tagout Box that my dad patented as a sideline business in 1992.

I remain in awe of him for having the wherewithal to bring his idea to fruition. Even though at that time he was earning union wage at an aluminum plant, it would have been very easy to stick with the status quo and avoid a financial risk that might or might not earn him enough money to be his own boss one day.

My parents never took money lightly. When they married, they were poor. A shotgun wedding in 1962 (both wedding bands totaled $40). A big move from Tell City to Jasper to find work. The baby (Kimberly Lee) born too prematurely for survival. Birthed and buried in one day, she lies eternally in Dubois County dirt in the shadow of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church.

Briefly, they rented in a neighborhood nicknamed Frog Town, a derogatory designation for a not-so-idyllic location. They had to make promissory payments for a seven-dollar, eight-inch, electric fan.

They still have the fan today, displayed like a well-preserved museum piece in their Tell City ranch house built in 1967. It’s a reminder of the tough times.

When I was born in 1964, we lived in a cinder-block house adjacent to a back alley in Tell City, the home the size of a two-car garage—if that. I keep a photo of it handy to remind myself that my current 1,200 square-foot home isn’t so shameful. Compared to the alley abode, I live in a mansion. Perspective.

Dad convinced mom that he was onto a good idea. As a lifelong machinist and maintenance employee who serviced large machinery, he knew how important his box would be to the safety of U.S. workers.

In 1998, at 53, as a major strike loomed, he accepted a generous severance package that promised lifetime healthcare benefits, a feature that proved very valuable when mom was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer in 2016.

His box was featured in major safety catalogues. The safety companies faxed and emailed purchase orders to him. When the orders became too much to handle, Mom traded in her restaurant hostess job to become dad’s office manager. She forwarded the POs to a plastics plant that produced the boxes. The boxes were shipped to steel, aluminum, borax and boron mills; to power plants, chemical plants and oil refineries; to major beer breweries, huge Canadian saw mills, and automotive plants. Mom stuck thumb tacks on a wall map where the boxes ended up, some tacks even flagging overseas locations.

Saalman Safety System was a mom-and-pop shop serving business behemoths. Its business model was so simplistic I doubt the term business model was ever even spoken between my parents. Their only overhead: a computer, a fax machine, a printer, a desk, all placed in my childhood bedroom. It was a consistent cash cow that I wish I could’ve milked.

I kidded myself that I would take over the family business one day. Ultimately, I lacked the courage (and money). When mom’s cancer zapped her energy, they sold the business to an interested outsider. Dad was too involved in his own machine shop (Saalman Machine and Tool being another dream achieved) to effectively keep up with the box orders. Today, they deservedly use the money to further enjoy their lives together.

I had a general idea of Saalman Safety System’s success though I must confess that the boxes really meant nothing more to me than a growing number of multi-colored thumbtacks on a world map in my childhood bedroom. But not until the TMMI tour was I able to see dad’s boxes actually being used within a major manufacturing arena. Suddenly, dad’s box became real. Finally, the magnitude of my dad’s dream, his contribution to worker safety, and my parents’ courage and business savvy hit home.  

At TMMI I came to terms with the fact that I am a son who’ll never be as successful as his old man. Dad set the bar too high, as heroes often do. From my arms, though, there sprouted goosebumps of a very proud son.

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