The Free Press, Mankato, MN

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August 12, 2011

Ojanpa: Road T.P. was his idea that stuck

The measure of a man can be in feet, inches or contributions to the greater good.

Among Fred Muellerleile’s donations to that cause has to do with toilet paper — and how our cars and streets are the better for it.

In fact, the Mankatoan’s 1970 innovation was held in such high regard by his state employers that he received an achievement certificate from the governor and a cash award in the curious amount of $416.25.

“At that time it was the largest award ever given a state employee for a suggestion,” said the pragmatically creative state highway department retiree, who also came up with several other innovative ideas that saved the state money, hassles, maybe even lives.

But the linchpin of his efforts is that bathroom tissue bit, which street and highway crews from Canada to Mexico continue to employ.

In 1970 Muellerleile was working in maintenance management at the department’s Mankato district headquarters. The job essentially required him to come up with ways to do things better, do them more safely and do more with less.

One day he was out observing road crew guys applying a tar-like sealant to highway cracks. They told Muellerleile the tar needed time to dry and traffic had to be halted until it did.

That seemed unnecessary to Muellerleile, and his brain began to perk. He rustled up a bunch of sheets of plain paper, tore them into about 4-inch strips and laid them over the wet cracks. The road crew more or less rolled their eyes.

The paper stuck and the gambit worked, Muellerleile said, but the sheets stayed intact and in place. Pretty ugly.

That’s when he hit upon the idea of using toilet paper. Bingo. Perfect width, easy to roll on and quick to disintegrate.

He said there was only one downside.

“The office girls complained that they were running short on toilet paper because we were using it all on the roads.”

The T.P. solution produced the dual benefits of keeping the still-moist sealant from being ripped free by passing cars while protecting vehicles from being splattered by black goo.

The ad-lib applicator he came up with — a length of stick with a roller attached — is essentially the same application means used today.

A few years ago he and his wife were driving down a road in Canada when they were stopped by a crew toilet-papering newly sealed cracks.

Muellerleile couldn’t resist:

“I said to the guy, ‘Where’d you get this idea?’ He said he’d heard some guy in Minnesota came up with it. I said, ‘That guy is who you’re looking at.’”

Muellerleile’s other innovations included coming up with an inventory system that cut down on wasteful dispensing of employee work equipment and making a dangerous and deadly bridge near St. James safer by reconfiguring its road approach.

He never got rich on his work-related innovations but maybe he could have on something he conjured up 57 years ago to deal with heaps of snow on his house.

He used a porch rail, a snow shovel handle and a slab of plywood to fashion a long snow rake, commercial versions of which winter-weary Minnesotans have come to know all too well.

That granddaddy of snow rakes still hangs in his garage.

“I never had the smarts to patent it,” Muellerleile said.

Brian Ojanpa is a Free Press staff writer. Call him at 344-6316 or email bojanpa@mankatofreepress.com.

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