AO Recollections
From The Outsider To The Insider of AO Southbridge

By: Hermann Kreissle


In Memory of...

Written in September, 2000


I had no intentions to get a job with American Optical, as a matter of fact I had never heard of AO. It was in July, 1952 when I took a vacation trip to Cape Cod and then through Massachusetts and New Hampshire that I stopped at Keene at a News Store for an ice cream cone. The local paper was just distributed which I bought to find out how a little town works (I worked in New York City at that time). There on the back page was an ad looking for a Mechanical Engineer by the American Optical Scientific Instrument Division.

I was curious to find out what an Optical Company in Keene, NH would look like, so I went to an old warehouse where this company was located. Three hours later, after a lengthy interview with Kelly Hannan, the Plant Manager, I was offered a job. Little did I know that AO was in the process of building a new plant at the other end of town.

AO Keene was an Ordinance Plant, a satellite of the Scientific Instrument Plant of Buffalo, NY. We worked on the Y-4 bombsight, an Air Force Contract with IBM. It was interesting work, much at the state-of-the-art in regards to optical precision and new ferrous material usage (like stainless steel 404).

Our technical guidance and control came from the Buffalo Plant Engineering Group, the overall Management and Finance Control was located in Southbridge. I had never heard of AO Southbridge, but people told me it is a really huge place. So one day I had the chance to go to AO Southbridge.

A Glass Fusing job had to be done on the Bombsite Dome, and the Glass Works at AO Southbridge was the place. I was just in awe when I saw the AO Southbridge complex.

After going over bridges, around corners, passed the Research Lab and the Power House Plant, I finally found the Glass Processing Lab under the supervision of Merton Smith. Needless to say after that experience, I began to realize that I was a very small part playing in a big league.

As the month went by, we had a contract to manufacture a 48" Aerial Camera, and a man by the name of Dr. Baker (the designer) was walking in the hollowed grounds of AO Research. But much help and assistance by the AO Research Lab was given to Keene by Art Kavanagh, a fine person who understood the limitations of the "farmers of NH" in manufacturing precision optics. He surely had a lot of patience with us, he and Bob Holleran, our local scientist got along fine.

Over the years, we gradually changed from an all Military Operation into some more commercial products and manufacturing. We made lenses for Todd-AO and some of us were invited for the opening of the film "Oklahoma" in NY City at Mike Todd Theater.

Later we made the Cycloplic Microscopes and other commercial products. The AO Southbridge Research Lab was our last word in technology and we treated the learned people of the Research Lab with very great reverence.

Then came the Sidewinder Fuse Project. After months of development and testing in Southbridge by the Research Group, it was decided to have Keene become the manufacturer of the Sidewinder Contract.

I had the "lucky job" to transfer the technology from AO Southbridge to AO Keene, which caused me to reside in Southbridge for 6 months. For the first time, I learned about the magnitude of the Southbridge Complex. I also learned that it took much leg work to go from plant to plant, crossed bridges, opened many doors and went up and down many flights of stairs in the daily business transactions. Ed Dixon was the Project Manager, a fine professional person and I met many other professional people who were eager to assist us in the success of the Sidewind Project.

I also worked with Al Batista, a real treat for me. When the AO Research Group was transferred to Framingham, we, in Keene, traveled to Framingham to obtain technical help and assistance. One interesting project was the Student Laser, the concept originated at the Research Lab with Dr. Mike Polanyi and Keene produced it in quantity. For us in NH, AO Southbridge Research Group was the elite Technical Center with a high concentration of Scientific Professionals.

One day we were asked at the Keene Plant to generate and polish simple Lens Blanks. With our ÒgreatÓ experience in producing precision optical components for Scientific Instruments, it seemed to be of no great difficulty. We produced the blanks, shipped the blanks to AO Southbridge and received word that our polished surfaces were not acceptable.

After some lengthy debates, Dr. John Winthrop came to Keene and tried to explain to us the special technical requirements for this blank. We learned, after much trial and tribulation, that the blanks were for the AO-7 Progressive Power Lens and needed special surface treatments. I will always remember John's patience with us in Keene in learning this new process.

Sometimes I went to the Fiber Optic Plant located outside of the AO Southbridge Fence Area and on the other side of the Quinabaug River. Bill McClurg was the Plant Manager. The Product Development was under the supervision of Dr. Sigmund. We, in Keene, polished these Fiber Optic Components that were used in the Night Vision Devices for Fort Belvar.

I remember talking with Bill McClurg about the huge AO Southbridge Operation, the many departments, operations and the various management structures. We agreed it is nice to visit AO Southbridge, but much nicer to go back to your small plant like Keene or Fiber Optics.

Then one day I got a telephone call from Glen Hastings asking me to join his staff and to become the Manufacturing Service Manager Worldwide. that certainly changed things, the family moved from Keene to Sturbridge. I was placed in a fancy office on Mahogany Row and began to interchange manufacturing information, not only between the various plants in Southbridge but plants in Austria, France, England, Brazil, Mexico and Canada. This job had by far the steepest learning curve I have ever experienced.

I also got a taste of the Warner-Lambert Group in Morris Plains, New Jersey. Now I was really on the Inside of AO Southbridge. The key events that I always remember is the AO people I met. I worked with Ron Hyslop (AOLITE), Pete Burger (Lens Plant), Cless Robbin (Frame Plant), and began also to understand the Safety Division and its Product Line. Traveling around the world, being in contact with the International manufacturing facilities, I got the impression that for International, AO Southbridge was the Mecca of the AO Organization, with all the new products, especially the Plastic Lenses and Anti-Reflection Coatings, and new Contact Lens Products.

The Southbridge Research Division was in the midst of giving high technology services under the guidance of Dr. Don Rotenberg.

From Glen Hasting's staff, I transferred to supervise the Frame Manufacturing of Southbridge, Frederick and Nicolet. Little did I know about the manufacturing complexity of a Fashion Oriented Product, Oscar de la Rente. Bob Griese and Dorothy Hamil were the Frame Fashion Product brand leaders that were suppose to conquer the market. John Enholm in Frame Marketing did his best to understand the inflexibility of Frame Manufacturing.

Organizational changes in AO were as frequent as the season of the year. One day I ended up as the Manufacturing Coordinator in the International Division working for Gene Lewis.

Much needed to be done to keep the Manufacturing Operations going in Frankfort, Germany and Vergo in France. Brazil also went through some restructuring. So I met Harold Threfelder/Germany, Herbert Zoch/Vergo and Alberto Maier/Brazil and my friend Octavio Rubio/Mexico.

As Warner-Lambert decided to downsize the AO International Division, I worked with Terry Dunn, who was a true gentleman, a man of real understanding in difficult situations.

After the 150th Birthday Celebration, it became apparent the AO had seen its best years and the future was, at best, uncertain. The daily question was "Who is still here? and Who is Gone?"
 

Somehow I ended up with the finest group of people and it was called AO Tech.  The task was to bring out new products in the Progressive Power Lens line and to transfer the complicated slumping process to the manufacturing facilities in Sao Paulo, Brazil and later on to Southbridge.
 

If there was ever a situation where personal devotion to the job was seen at its best, it was at AO Tech, with John Winthrop as the leader and inspiration. Alex Menyhart and Jim Duszlak were the people that accomplished much under sometimes difficult circumstances. AO Tech was perhaps the last group worked with that worked at the cutting edge of Ophthalmic Technology.

During the many years of my association with the various Divisions of AO, and being involved with so many departments, meeting people from different professions and skill, I will always remember AO's finest people, the receptionists and secretaries. It was a pleasure to go to different plants and operations because you were greeted with much kindness by the receptionist, like Bea Hamil at the Research Lab, and even in difficult situations, their kindness and smile made your day.

One's management efficiency and effectiveness is to a large part dependent on the secretary one has. Without their intuitions and skills to guide you through the maze of management tasks and responsibilities, one is just lost. So I will always remember Marge Breen and her outstanding skill in making sure I had access to top management when needed.

Forever will I be grateful for Margo Fontaine for her devotion to the cause, her patience in understanding my oddities and her incredible energy to get a job done. You find this story, written in a lousy handwriting, readable only because of Margo.

From July, 1952 until July, 1988, it was a long association with AO. From the Outsider of AO Southbridge to the Insider of AO Southbridge, it was a fascinating and rewarding working experience. I can hardly visualize any other working career where you meet so many fine people because the spirit of AO prevailed for so many years.

As one begins to contemplate about things and perhaps to find reasons for the rise and fall of the American Optical Company, one must find a closure in the acknowledgement of the complexity of the product line and of the diversity of the AO Organization, the people that have come and gone over the years. After all, people were the ecstasy and the agony in the world of our business.

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