Inventor blazes unconventional path to business UP DIFFERENT SLOPES

March 08, 1995|By Alec Matthew Klein | Alec Matthew Klein,Sun Staff Writer

Walter Dandy was not a typical kid. On the high school football team, he once scored for the opponent. In college, he was excused from Spanish class, so hapless were his language skills. And then there were the flashes -- an explosion of an idea, fully crystallized.

These are the epiphanies of inventor Walter Edward Dandy III of Baltimore, whose grandfather designed the protective baseball helmet and whose forebears created Ellicott City out of 18th-century wilderness.

Mr. Dandy's latest innovation is called "Constant-Force Articulated Dynamic Struts," or CADS. Here's how they work: Skiers attach a pair of high-tension rods to the back of their ski boots and latch them to a harness around their waist and thighs. Akin to shock absorbers, they are designed to prevent injuries, alleviate pressure on the knees and improve performance on the slopes.

Former Olympic skiers attest to the struts, doctors recommend them, but a fashion statement, they're not. Skeptics "say that they look like they could go up your rear end, but there's a simple mechanical reason why it can't," Mr. Dandy said. "It's too long."

Like his product, the 43-year-old Vail, Colo.-based inventor is unconventional -- part P. T. Barnum, original thinker, bold entrepreneur, father of twins and purveyor of pig figurines.

His self-diagnosis in jest: It is "the compulsion of a recidivist contraptionist and small-time entrepreneur."

Mr. Dandy is a compact, jovial man with wind-blown graying hair who likes to say, "I spent three decades at the greatest university in the world," because he entered Harvard in 1969, dropped out for a year, failed a test required for graduation, then passed it in time to don a cap and gown in 1980.

"He's sort of an eccentric guy from Harvard, I'd rather leave it at that," said W. A. Read Knox, a former neighbor and an original investor in CADS. Then he added: "He's sort of a renaissance man."

Mr. Dandy is more modest about his knack for invention. "Part of it was by default," he said. "If they'd asked me to be secretary of state, I'd have done that. Nice swivel chair. It was as much a function of limitations as ability."

Yet he never wondered about the effects of dyslexia because he didn't discover he had the reading disorder until he enrolled at Harvard. A free-spirit, Mr. Dandy simply didn't fit the family cerebral mold.

"I can remember how my mother always said I completely lacked caution," he said. "I'd climb any tree. . . . Rather than tell me I

couldn't climb it, my mother put a blanket on the rock under the tree for when I fell."

Mr. Dandy, however, was aware of his roots. His grandfather -- the original Walter Dandy -- was a distinguished brain surgeon at the Johns Hopkins University. Dr. Dandy put plastic inserts in a 1941 Brooklyn Dodgers cap that sits in storage at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y, according to the museum registrar. Mr. Dandy also knew, as the Ellicott graveyard treasurer confirmed, that he was a descendant of the Ellicotts of Pennsylvania who turned a scrap of land in Maryland into a milling town.

And then there was Walter Dandy III, who at the age of 15 got a red lady bug tattoo on his right thigh, which his parents don't know about -- until today, 28 years later.

"I thought it was possible that Walter would follow his own path, rather than an institutional one," said an understated Thomas M. Caplan, a Harvard friend from Baltimore and vice president of the downtown jeweler Oscar Caplan & Sons. "But did I think he'd become an inventor? No."

In the spring of 1971, Mr. Dandy didn't know either. Then 19, he dropped out of Harvard for a year to start something he knew nothing about -- a painting contracting company. His parents, accustomed to their son's way, reacted with aplomb: "Great, the first job you can have is to paint a couple of rooms here."

Then came the wood-burning stove revelation.

He knew as much about manufacturing stoves as he did about painting. Which was nothing. But he saw a Norwegian version that caught his eye in a magazine and decided he would make one even better.

From 1977 to 1983, the Dandy Stove Co. made about 900 300-pound stoves with a distinctive pig engraving. The artistic touch wasn't the sole feature. The stove also was designed to conserve heat that would last overnight.

The venture, however, didn't conserve money. He lost $70,000, became a stockbroker, then found himself on the ski lifts in Lake Tahoe, Calif., pondering his burning thighs and -- poof -- that flash returned: CADS.

The ski product has yet to turn a profit, and revenues this year are expected in the low six figures, but its inventor (president of three employees, including himself and his wife, Jenny) said, "We're kind of at the stage where the Beatles were ready for the 'Ed Sullivan Show.' "

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