From the monthly archives:

March 2003

But enough about me… what about MY DAD?

My dad, William D. Paynter, is a biochemist.  From 1952 to 1986 he worked for Oscar Mayer.  About 50 years ago he co-authored an article for the “Journal of Food Technology,” titled  Use of the 2-Thiobarbituric Acid Reagent to Measure Rancidity in Frozen Pork.  While this sounds dead dull, it’s actually a seminal work.  Turns out that freezing meat between zero and 32 degrees Fahrenheit isn’t quite enough to keep it fresh and palatable.  It spoils in a month or so, at least for commercial food preparation purposes.  Drop your storage temp to minus 20F and you can see a real improvement.  Drop it to minus 40F and you can virtually eliminate spoilage.  Dad did the work that demonstrated all this.

Dad has his name on a lot of patents.  Some of the work was uniquely his, some of it was done in teams, but all of it was innovative and valuable intellectual property, at least in the eyes of the corporation.  Dad led the way in freeze dried foods, in microwavable meat products, and in a whole world of seasoning alternatives best left undisclosed to the vegans among us. 

I was reading David Weinberger’s Salon article, “The myth of interference,” about David Reed’s concepts of infinite bandwidth.  Dr. W. references some work by an old acquaintance of mine from the Bank of America days, Eric Blossom.  Eric is a free software hackist with his feet in corporate America.  These issues of intellectual property and how the more creative among us leave their footprints on the cultural landscape are ever interesting. 

My dad invented the wiener tunnel.  “What,” you may ask, “is a wiener tunnel?”  A wiener tunnel is simply an automated process for making tens of thousands of wieners in the time and space that formerly were required to produce some few hundreds of the tasty sausages.  My dad provided the technical breakthrough in wiener manufacturing that was necessary to create a national brand.  Without my dad, generations of Americans would have missed the “Wish I was an Oscar Mayer wiener” jingle, as they would have missed the ubiquitous alternative tranportation system known as the wienermobile.  For without national branding, the Oscar Mayer wiener would have remained a cultural regionalism, unsung on network TV.

I think the wiener tunnel also created enormous profits for Oscar’s shareholders.

I had generally felt a little conflicted about dad’s work.  How much good is done by lacing food with MSG?  What’s the bottom line benefit to the culture of saran packaging?  And when Oscar Mayer was slowly submerged into the corporate maelstrom of Phillip Morris - through General Foods, and Kraft Foods, and whatever other buy-outs and reorganizations occurred - I didn’t sense a great loss. In fact, when my friend Maddy Chaber took off after Phillip Morris, I cheered her on! 

But these conflicts resolved themselves Friday night when Kraft Foods honored dad for what they called his “timeless innovation.”  Dad, who will be eighty this year, was the guest of honor at the Kraft Foods Research and Development Quality Leadership Awards Banquet held March 14 at the Drake Hotel in Chicago.  Mom died three years ago so when Kraft invited dad and a “guest,” he called on me.  (I’m just guessing, but I suspect that he chose me, not only as the oldest child, but also because I have a camera).  Regardless, I was very proud of dad that night.

Bill Paynter was a child during the depression and a young man during World War II, a highly decorated veteran of the US Army 102nd.Infantry Division.  He fought Germans through Belgium and Holland and was seriously wounded in late November, 1944 as they approached Germany.  His GI Bill studies at the University of Wisconsin followed by grad school at the University of Chicago must have seemed the easiest part of what until then had been a tough life.

Dad has a low sense of humor… puns abound when he’s around, and he also composes some of the world’s worst doggerel.  These poetic flights have kept him in demand for retirement and anniversary parties for as long as I can remember.  Dad belongs to an Oscar Mayer bowling league in the winter, and a golf league in the summer.  For years, he and mom also bowled in an Oscar Mayer couples league every Friday night.

Kraft management has interviewed dad about how the old Oscar Mayer managed to do so much with a modest research budget.  Dad credits his boss Mr. Sloan with giving the team challenging assignments, then getting out of the way and letting them run with their ideas.  But there’s more to it than that.

This Quality Leadership banquet reveals a post-war cultural evolution, an attenuation that may have driven out authenticity from the efforts of today’s corporate minions, at least in the world of corporate meat.  When guys like dad got home from the war and settled into the post-war expansion they had a quality that dad always called “savvy.”  It’s a fix-it-with-a-jack-knife kind of thing.  These guys who had so recently teamed up to save each others lives and push back well armed men who would have preferred not to be pushed — these guys weren’t all that challenged by making improvements to production lines.  They had a team spirit that welcomed a challenge.  The post-war Japanese came then, took pictures, assessed process, and adopted the best of this teamwork and egalitarian methodology and began to re-emerge as an industrial power-house.  W. Edwards Deming visited with the Japanese and documented the “quality” concepts that he found in Japan, and the rest is history.  The children (like me) of the fifties industrial pioneers (like dad) were saddled with a bunch of flavor of the month management seminars that came down to common sense and teamwork.

Upon receiving his award, dad said a few words… and what I can remember is this:  “It’s about listening to your co-workers, your team mates… it’s about valuing everybody’s contribution… it’s about remaining open to new ideas wherever you find them.”

I am really proud of my old man and lucky that he’s my father.  

 

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