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Obituary of George Burdeau Desloge: Aeronautical engineer and inventor who led Watlow

This article first appeared in the St Louis Beacon, Aug. 1, 2011 - It's a pretty safe bet that most homes in Frontenac do not have a machine shop in the basement or all the parts to build an airplane. The basement of George Desloge always had the former and, at times, the latter. His day job was president of Watlow.

"He ran the business by day and tinkered and built new things by night," said Lou Steinhauser, an engineer at Watlow for almost three decades. "Once in a while a major product came out of it.

"That was his life."

"I was always trying to figure out ways to make things easier, simpler and faster," his family recently recalled Mr. Desloge saying.

Mr. Desloge died of pneumonia on Monday at St. John's Mercy Medical Center in Creve Coeur. He was 86.

Watlow was formed to manufacture low-watt (hence, its name) electric heating elements to replace more expensive steam heat in molding leather for shoes. Mr. Desloge was born two years after his father founded the company in 1922. He joined the family business in 1948 and succeeded his father as president in 1965.

The Inventor

Mr. Desloge was not given to creating the exquisite, outsized mechanical drawings he was taught in engineering school. He didn't use a T-square. He favored sketching in standard notebooks that were always at his fingertips. His technique led to numerous inventions, including nearly a dozen that he patented.

One such invention was a "major product" in 1954.

"George came up with a very compact design, a cylinder, that created the ability to put a whole lot of heat in a small package," Steinhauser said. "You just drill a hole in whatever you want to heat and put the cylinder in. It revolutionized the industry and put Watlow on the map."

It's aptly named the FIREROD and it's now used in all kinds of applications, from heating blood for kidney dialysis patients to heating oil for fast food fries; from heating liquid halon to prevent aircraft explosions to boiling crude oil for analysis.

"It's hard to imagine how George could possibly have known how he would positively impact the world with the invention of the FIREROD," Steinhauser said.

Mr. Desloge not only invented devices, he custom-designed all the equipment needed to make them. Most of the machines he designed remain in use at Watlow today.

"He envisioned new products that customers wanted before they even knew they wanted them," Steinberger added.

Mr. Desloge's mother, a seamstress, recognized her son's inventive talents early. Like her, he was good with his hands, so she allowed him a back room of their University City house for a workshop. He set about building the tools of his first machine shop -- a table saw, a welder and a drill press -- all fashioned from old pieces of pipe. By his mid-teens, he was spending his summers following "Pop" to the factory, a concrete block building located on what would become the Pruitt-Igoe housing site at 23rd and Dixon streets.

He saved his summer earnings and was soon able to drive himself to work in the Ford Model A that he bought and fixed up.

George Burdeau Desloge, the middle child of Louis Francis and Angela Burdeau Desloge's seven children, was born Oct. 13, 1924, in St. Louis. Following his graduation from St. Louis University High School in 1941, he attended Saint Louis University for a year before transferring to the University of Notre Dame. While there, he joined the U.S. Navy and became an apprentice seaman while continuing his education. He later served on the U.S.S. Monterey and the U.S.S. Rendova; he was discharged in 1946. Mr. Desloge was 21 when he resumed his studies at Notre Dame, graduating magna cum laude in 1947 with a bachelor's degree in aeronautical engineering.

Following graduation, he worked briefly as an aerodynamicist at McDonnell Aircraft, then as a cost engineer for R.C. Mahon Co., a steel-door manufacturer in Detroit. His father asked him to come home and he did, joining Watlow as a design engineer in April 1948. He remained with the company until his retirement in 2000.

The Innovator

When Mr. Desloge took over the company from his father in 1965, Watlow had sales of $2.3 million. With his brother Louis Desloge Jr. by his side as the sales and marketing man, Mr. Desloge would put Watlow on the road to becoming the $350 million company it is today. The company, which now manufactures custom-designed sensors and controllers as well as heaters, has 200 patents and employs 2,000 people in a dozen manufacturing facilities in the U.S., Mexico, Europe and Asia.

Two years before he moved from company president to chairman of the board in 1991, Mr. Desloge commissioned a radical change in the company.

"In the '80's, he read the book by (Richard) Schoenberger and he was intrigued by it," said Ed Desloge, Mr. Desloge's son who worked for Watlow for more than 20 years. "He started with the top team and got (the concept) going gangbusters."

The book was "World Class Manufacturing." The concept was manufacturing based on blended management that involves all employees in the decision-making and problem-solving process.

He went to the concept because "he had this burning passion to be the best," said Mr. Desloge's son and current CEO of Watlow, Peter Desloge. "It has evolved until today and we are devout believers in running the business in a way that reduces waste by fully engaging all of our team members."

Not the Normal Way

Mr. Desloge was an adventurer who parachuted at age 50, piloted a ship through the Sir Francis Drake Channel in the Caribbean and flew ultralight aircraft, including a Bede Aircraft BD-5, an experimental, high-performance plane that he built in his basement.

"He never did anything in the normal way," Peter laughed.

The golf club he created is certainly not the norm. He disliked carrying a golf bag, so he invented an adjustable club, along with a holster and belt for the balls and tees. The club didn't quite work as a putter, so he made an attachment to modify the head. His friends and family witnessed the continuous refinements to his "one club solution to golf."

Mr. Desloge was preceded in death by his parents and four siblings: Angela "Kiki" Meslans, Elizabeth "Betty" Beckman, Julie Haggerty Hunnewell and David Desloge.

Among his survivors are his wife of 59 years, Mary Rose (O'Brien) Desloge; five sons, Ed Desloge of Frontenac, Mike Desloge of Raleigh, N.C., Tom (Terrie) Desloge of Manchester, Peter (Bridget) Desloge of Chesterfield, and Patrick Desloge of Valley Park; two daughters, Maura (Jeff) Rattikin of Fort Worth, Texas, and Julie (Drew) Dubray of Frontenac; two brothers, Louis (Graciela) Desloge Jr. of Creve Coeur and Edward (Moira) Desloge of Tallahassee, Fla., and 14 grandchildren.

Visitation will be from 9:30-10:30 a.m., Fri., Aug. 5 at St. Clement of Rome Catholic Church, 1510 Bopp Road in Des Peres, followed by a funeral Mass at 10:30 a.m. at the church. Burial will be at Calvary Cemetery.

Mr. Desloge and his wife supported the ministries to the poor and the missions of St. Agnes Home and the Little Sisters of the Poor, which honored them in 2009 with their St. Jeanne Jugan Caritas Award.

In lieu of flowers, gifts may be made to the Little Sisters of the Poor, 3225 North Florissant Ave., St. Louis MO 63107, or St. Agnes Home, 10341 Manchester Road, Kirkwood, MO 63122.

Gloria Ross is the head of Okara Communications and the storywriter for AfterWords, an obituary-writing and production service. 

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