Warminster, PA (January 22, 2012) It’s hard to imagine a crueler fate for Fred Pirkle, an inventor whose 65-year-old hands have been in creative motion since he was a boy growing up in Texas.
“The first time I stood next to a lathe,” the Bucks County manufacturing executive recalled, “I was shivering all over. I was excited as I could be.”
The first time he got to run a lathe? “I was almost paralyzed with excitement,” Pirkle said.
Today, the excitement is still there, though a fast-moving form of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, more familiarly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, has shut down virtually all Pirkle’s voluntary muscle movement.
Less than a year ago, he was walking and driving. Now, he is only barely able to move his right foot. Breathing has become the job of the machine that feeds him air 24/7. His once perpetually tinkering hands are motionless.
He is “ready to meet my maker,” the founder of ThermOmegaTech®, a manufacturer of temperature-control valves in Warminster, said during an interview earlier this month at his home in the township. There, medical professionals provide round-the-clock care.
Yet, never one to let up on improving what exists, Pirkle still is working – even though he’s no longer able to pick up a tool. These days, his work is predominantly about legacy building. Specifically, he wants to ensure that he is playing a part in helping preserve – if not bolster – U.S. manufacturing long after his inventive mind is quieted and his ability to create American jobs has passed.
In December, Pirkle pledged $25 million to his alma mater, Sam Houston State University, outside Houston. As the largest single-gift commitment to the school, his contribution will enable the establishment of an engineering-technology program.
“I’m very much about America and . . . putting Americans back to work,” Pirkle said when asked about the gift, to be paid out within 10 years. “It’s critically important that we retool and retrain people, particularly young people, to take these critically important jobs to put us back in the forefront of manufacturing worldwide.”
As president, chief executive officer, and sole owner of ThermOmegaTech, Pirkle said he decided after his life-shortening ALS diagnosis last April that “I have to be willing to put my money where my mouth is.”
And, it turns out, where his heart is. Manufacturing “just became my love,” Pirkle said of his career choice.
That passion ignited during the 1960s in shop class at Harlandale High School in San Antonio, where Pirkle won a set of socket wrenches for having the highest average. At Sam Houston State, the son of a sign painter and a five-and-dime store clerk would earn a bachelor’s degree in industrial arts in 1970 and a master’s degree in industrial technology four years later.
After two years teaching wood shop and metal arts in a Houston-area school district, Pirkle went to work as a sales engineer for a couple of Texas companies. One of them, Eggelhof Inc., would assign him to a Philadelphia-area affiliate, Ogontz Controls Co. in Willow Grove.
In 1982, Pirkle launched ThermOmegaTech after, he said, he had created a temperature-control valve that Conrail officials determined was worth trying to prevent freeze damage to its diesel locomotives. An order for 25 at $125 apiece led to a second for 125 valves – and to the conclusion, “Oh my God, I’m rich,” he quipped, his sense of humor well-known.
Today, ThermOmegaTech’s Guru DL-2.1, or Guru Plug, and its larger Guru Magnum protect billions of dollars in railroad equipment each year. The company’s freeze- and scald-prevention valves also are used in the plumbing, aeronautics, and defense industries.
About 12 years ago, a separate division was created to indulge another Pirkle obsession: barbecue. He never did realize his dream of opening a barbecue restaurant, but he wanted to put his industrial acumen to work to help grill masters and novices.
From the ThermOmegaTech factory floor emerged the BBQ Guru, marketed as the first temperature-control device for charcoal grills and cookers. It is a rapidly growing side of the business, with an expanding product line that will soon debut a device allowing cooks to control grills from afar using WiFi.
Though the last 15 years have hardly been an easy time for American manufacturing, Pirkle estimated that he has laid off fewer than a dozen from his company of 55 employees. A philosophy of cross-training and not adding personnel too quickly has enabled him to largely avoid job cuts, he said.
Not that this small company with an encouraging story is without controversy.
The 1990s were dominated by litigation between ThermOmegaTech and Ogontz Controls over a patent dispute Pirkle would ultimately lose regarding an early version of what is now the Guru Plug.
More recently, in February 2010, the company endured an acrimonious management shake-up. Triggering it was Pirkle’s divorce from his wife, Linda, who had been running the company with help from their three children while he focused on creating product.
A new management team was put in place, and Pirkle bought back interest in ThermOmegaTech from two sons and a stepdaughter to become full owner, said Jim Logue Jr., a turnaround expert hired to help with the restructuring. At the time, Pirkle was still recovering from a 2002 stroke that had severely disabled his left side.
Logue, 55, of Blue Bell, is now the company’s chief operating officer. Pirkle’s office just off the lobby is largely unused, his visits down to two a week, at most.
“When he gets here, we all are appreciative of it,” Logue said. “But we can see his decline. It really hurts.”
Logue would not disclose the company’s annual revenue. He would say only that sales over the last two years have increased 37 percent and that net income last year was more than 2.5 times greater than in 2009.
That trend is why Logue is confident the company will be able to fulfill Pirkle’s funding promise to Sam Houston State.
“Our job is to fulfill the legacy,” Logue said. And while “there’s a lot of tragedy” associated with Pirkle’s health challenges, he said, “there’s also such promise to his story, and I’m happy to be part of it.”
The first $1 million from ThermOmegaTech has been delivered to Sam Houston, where the entire $25 million pledge will fund construction of the Fred Pirkle Engineering Technology Center, as well as scholarships and academic programs, said Frank Holmes, vice president for university advancement.
Just a few months ago, “virtually no one” on campus knew of Pirkle, Holmes said. Now, “people are just in awe of him.”
That is not just because of the money, but because of the way its donor has dealt with his devastating disease.
“The way he has carried himself this past year has been absolutely amazing and inspiring to people,” Holmes said. His own talks with Pirkle have left him no doubt that the consummate inventor will continue inventing “until his last breath.”
That seems to be Pirkle’s plan, with a particular goal of creating products to help ALS patients and others with physical limitations.
With help from Tim Owens, a research-and-development designer at ThermOmegaTech, Pirkle has devised a microphone attachment for his breathing mask that enables him to be understood when he talks. They have also come up with a nipple like device that makes filling feeding tubes easier, and an alarm button for the footrest of Pirkle’s wheelchair that he can activate with the minimal foot movement he has left.
It is a fittingly productive final act for his long, productive career, Pirkle suggested.
“I wish I could work another 20, 25 years,” he said, “but I’ll be happy to finish out with a couple of projects that help people.”
“For more information about Lou Gehrig’s disease and how you can help, visit www.alsphiladelphia.org.”
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