The diverse works of Carus Corp.

June 25, 1992|By Wes Smith | Wes Smith,Chicago Tribune

PERU, Ill. -- Lee Franklin, an employee of Carus Corp., has a problem common to all who toil under the broad span of its corporate umbrella.

"Even though I have been here 12 years, I still have difficulty explaining to people that I work for a company that produces potassium permanganate, philosophical publications and children's literary magazines," Mr. Franklin said.

About 100 miles southwest of Chicago, and just across the Illinois River from Starved Rock State Park, "The Oxidant of Choice" meets "Disputers of Tao" meets Cricket and Ladybug.

Carus Corp. has about 350 employees and annual sales of about $60 million from three diverse subsidiaries -- sort of the Tweedle-chem, Tweedle-hmm and Tweedle-kiddie of Midwestern business.

The first and driest of these is Carus Chemical Co., which claims to be the world's largest producer of potassium permanganate (brand name Cairox: "The Oxidant of Choice"), which is used in water and waste-water treatment to control taste, odor, algae and zebra mussels, among other things.

The second Carus subsidiary is The Open Court Publishing Co., which produces reading and mathematics teaching programs for schoolchildren. The publishing arm also turns out about 30 books annually in the highbrow realms of philosophy, psychology, religion, public policy and cultural criticism. Its book list, which is unlikely to inspire any episodes of "Oprah," "Donahue" or the gang, features brain-teasers such as "Disputers of the Tao" and "Grue! The New Riddle of Induction."

The third subsidiary is home to Zoot the pygmy shrew, Weenie the New Jersey mosquito, Marty the huggable inchworm and associates. They are cast members of Cricket and Ladybug, two award-winning, monthly children's magazines that feature the works of many of the world's best illustrators and most respected writers.

Known as a hothouse for new talent (many of Cricket's short stories are expanded into children's books), the Carus magazines also feature the work of literary superstars such as Isaac Bashevis Singer, William Saroyan, John Updike, T.S. Eliot and Robert Frost.

Cricket has been hailed as "the New Yorker of kiddie literature" because of its high-quality contents. It has received the Parents' Choice award five times.

The unlikely mix of children's literary magazines, chemical production and textbook publishing makes for an interesting annual report, and sometimes confusing introductions, said Blouke Carus, Carus' cerebral president and chief executive officer.

"People often can't figure us out," Mr. Carus said. "There are no other chemical companies in the publishing business, nor are there any other publishing companies in the chemical business.

"It is rather unusual, but our varied interests are all outgrowths of our family history," he said. "Even today, we are a family of many interests. We don't have many boring dinner conversations."

This strange corporate concoction began, strangely enough, with zinc and coal, Mr. Carus said. In 1857 two German metallurgical engineers, Edward C. Hegeler and Frederick W. Matthiessen, immigrated to the U.S. to begin a zinc-smelting business.

They found zinc ore deposits near Mineral Point, Wis., and Galena, Ill., but because the zinc-smelting process requires twice as much coal as zinc, they located their plant close to the nearest large coal deposit, which happened to be near Peru and its sister city, La Salle.

Mr. Hegeler was an intellectual who studied philosophy and religion. He believed that no religion or culture had a monopoly on truth, but each had its own truths that could be proved through scientific study.

To spread his beliefs, Mr. Hegeler founded the Open Court magazine in 1887 and hired as editor Paul Carus, another German intellectual, who later married Mr. Hegeler's daughter.

Subsidized by the zinc plant, the publishing operation expanded to include a scholarly journal, The Monist, which is still issued as an international quarterly devoted to "general philosophical inquiry" by the Hegeler Institute, a not-for-profit foundation funded by the Carus family.

Mr. Hegeler's original editor, Mr. Carus, wrote 50 books, and it is his great-grandson, Blouke, who today heads the family-held corporation. Like Mr. Hegeler, Blouke Carus is an engineer with a great many intellectual diversions, but education is his chief avocation.

He has served on committees for the U.S. Department of Education and the Illinois Board of Education. He also is the primary force in this country behind the International Baccalaureate. The two-year college-prep program, based in Geneva, Switzerland, promotes international understanding by encouraging students to attend universities and colleges around the world.

Blouke Carus grew up in La Salle-Peru and earned a degree in electrical engineering from the California Institute of Technology before going on to the University of Freiburg in Germany ("because I wanted to learn other languages") to study chemistry.

"One of my father's college professors suggested that he get into permanganate, because no one in this country was producing it, so he took the advice and began making it in the bathtub from scratch," Mr. Carus said.

Cricket magazine emerged from another room in the house of Carus: the nursery. "When our first child was learning to read, we bought him children's books, but most of them seemed to have absolutely no content, and my husband said our son wasn't learning anything from them," Marianne Carus said.

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