“I love machinery,” says my grandpa, Roy Ricke. “When I was young, I was inquisitive about everything.”
A born innovator, at six or seven years old, he took his father’s pocket watch apart—and then put it back together. Later, he customized his Model A pick-up with hydraulic brakes and a stick shift on the steering wheel. Roy started his career working as a plumber.
In 1952, he was drafted into the Army. He took the Armed Forces Qualification Test (AFQT). After scoring 100% on the test, the Army made Roy an offer. If he signed up for an extra year of service, he’d receive schooling and wouldn’t fight in the front lines of combat. He accepted.
Roy was trained to do intelligence radio interception. “It was interesting work, I felt like I was doing something good,” Roy said. “There are even some things I can’t tell you because I’m still under an oath of secrecy.”
When he finished serving in the Army, he went back to work as a plumber. He always wanted to innovate in order to improve things and to make things easier, so he could make more money. He promoted the use of plastic pipe, innovated a special wrench for sink installation and worked with a pipe fitting manufacturer to create several unique fittings.
In 1971, Marvin Schwan invited Roy to visit a plant he had just acquired in Salina, Kansas. It was a pizza plant and Marvin needed Roy’s help with refrigeration work. At the end of the trip, Marvin asked Roy, “So, what do you think?” Roy responded, “The plant is great, but everything is done by hand. You need to automate.” Marvin hired Roy to automate the plant.
Roy lived in Marshall, Minnesota for the first seven years he worked at the Salina, Kansas pizza plant. Since he had his pilot’s license, Schwan’s rented a small plane so he could fly himself down to Salina to work for the week and then fly home for the weekend. He commuted by plane for the first five years. When Schwan’s stopped paying to rent the plane, Roy knew it was time to move to Kansas.
During his time working at the Tony’s Pizza plant, he automated the process of making pizzas—he created machines that applied sauce, cheese and meatballs. Throughout the years, Roy worked in other plants owned by Marvin Schwan in California, Kentucky and Texas. He automated a plant where people had been rolling egg rolls by hand. People were afraid that automation of factories would eliminate their jobs. Marvin Schwann made sure his employees knew no one would lose his/her job to automation. In fact, automation makes factory jobs easier and creates jobs for people who service equipment.
In his home kitchen Roy even invented a new product—Little Charlies—individual sized pizzas. Roy designed and built equipment for a plant in England to make these individual pizzas.
In 1999, Roy retired from Schwan’s. But he certainly didn’t stop. “If you have an inventive mind, you can’t shut it off. I have no desire to sit in a rocking chair for the rest of my life,” said Roy. He went on to design and build machines to aid in the production of biscotti and coffee cake.
He also designed a machine to make Belgian cookies—for personal use. If you aren’t familiar with Belgian cookies, they are wafer thin cookies made with an iron over the stove. Often called “Hail Mary” cookies because you say one “Hail Mary” prayer for each side of the cookie. As you can imagine, these cookies take a long time to make. As Roy watched his wife labor over the stove making cookies, he was inspired to create a machine to bake the cookies instead. He built a machine with cookie irons on a wheel. Dough squirts into an iron at the top of the wheel and as the wheel turns, the cookie bakes. When the iron reaches the bottom of the wheel, the iron pops open and the cookie comes out.
What is your creative process?
When I’m given a challenge, I ask a lot of questions before I design anything. What is the problem? How is the problem currently being solved? Does that solution work? Can I do it better? Can I do it more efficiently? Then I start daydreaming. Sketching. I build test equipment and make a series of machines. For example, I built an evolution of machines to produce a new Italian pastry crust for Tony’s Pizza. The goal was working toward eliminating waste. Once the efficiencies were met, we showed the machine to management. One of the managers said, “I don’t understand why the machine didn’t work that well at the start of the project.” I responded with, “Hmmm. I wonder why the Wright Brothers didn’t start with the 747!”
What was your favorite assignment?
The Little Charlie project. It was multi-faceted. There were many challenges in creating the machinery for this project. It was very rewarding to see it to completion. And we won some awards for it in the European food shows.
What is the best moment of the day?
Early morning. Having breakfast with my wife Pat and planning the day. I like the bright sun in the morning and looking across the lake to see egrets and birds.
What books do you read?
Teddy Roosevelt books, technical books. I use the internet a lot. I like www.practicalmachinist.com. It’s a forum where you can compare notes and pick up a lot of good ideas.
What are you afraid of regarding the future?
I fear getting an incurable disease. I hope to never become incapacitated and unable to enjoy motor home trips. I keep my mind as active as I can.
What is the biggest risk you’ve ever taken?
Flying the airplane? That was never a risk! Moving my family from Marshall, MN to Salina, KS.
What is one thing you couldn’t live without?
My wife. I’m dependent on her for so many things and I don’t know what I’d be without her. Having a mate is a stabilizing factor in your life. The loss of that would be extreme for me.
Can design change the world?
The answer is already yes. Look at what inventions have done for food production and in the medical fields. Yes, design can change the world. What would the world look like without things like steam power or the printing press? Design is the backbone of civilization. I think it is sad that the Taliban hates modernism. But at the same time, there are tribes in South Africa without modernism that are pretty happy! It’s a double-edged sword.
What is one of the most unexpected things that has happened in your life?
Getting married and thinking that we are going to have children someday. How am I going to take care of this family? We’ve been married 55 years now and life is good. I had an amazingly fun job. I have no regrets. I wish I had time to do more. I’m very happy with how things turned out for me. I found a business niche I enjoy—I’m 78 and still going! Where in the world did all the time go? Goes by fast.