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Pennsylvania workers bring joy to kids through toys

| Sunday, Sept. 6, 2015, 9:42 p.m.
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Jordan Howell supervises Crayola’s latest invention, which lets kids bring drawings to life in animated movies by using the Easy Animation Studio.
Evan Sanders | Trib Total Media
Assorted toys, manufactured by Channel Craft of North Charleroi, are displayed inside the company's conference room on Wednesday, July 29, 2015.
Evan Sanders | Trib Total Media
Channel Craft’s boomerang is “the ultimate boy toy,” said company founder Dean Helfer Jr. “It’s science and history and sport.
Evan Sanders | Trib Total Media
Tonia St. Cyr works to finish boomerangs in the Channel Craft toy plant in North Charleroi.
Evan Sanders | Trib Total Media
Brian Rudobsky carves boomerangs on the assembly line at the Channel Craft toy plant in North Charleroi.
Evan Sanders | Trib Total Media
George Coleman applies a coat of water-based latex paint to finished boomerangs in the Channel Craft toy plant in North Charleroi.
Evan Sanders | Trib Total Media
Dean Helfer, founder of the Channel Craft toy company, tests a product on the assembly line of the North Charleroi plant.
Evan Sanders | Trib Total Media
“I spent all those years looking at the negative (as a private investigator). It’s invigorating to work in a positive place,” said Dennis Miller (center), an employee of Channel Craft toy company in North Charleroi.
Evan Sanders | Trib Total Media
In 1983, Dean Helfer Jr. set up the beginnings of the Channel Craft toy company in the back of an old Ford van, driving to festivals to peddle his wooden toys.
Steph Chambers | Trib Total Media
Heather Croston, a design manager of 14 years at K’NEX Industries, designed a line of Mighty Makers toys aimed at teaching girls science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, concepts. ”It always comes back to what I would have wanted to play with,” she said.
Steph Chambers | Trib Total Media
Heather Croston, a design manager of 14 years at K’NEX Industries, designed a line of Mighty Makers toys aimed at teaching girls science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, concepts. ”It always comes back to what I would have wanted to play with,” she said.
Steph Chambers | Trib Total Media
Heather Croston, a design manager of 14 years at K’NEX Industries, designed a line of Mighty Makers toys aimed at teaching girls science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, concepts. ”It always comes back to what I would have wanted to play with,” she said.
Steph Chambers | Trib Total Media
Michael Klitsch practices aiming his K’NEX set in the toymaker’s headquarters near Philadelphia on Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2015. Klitsch, 41, has been with K’NEX since he was 20.

Dennis Miller of Donora always wanted to be Santa Claus.

That job was taken.

So he set out on a different path, spending four decades as a private investigator in Atlanta but never abandoning the notion that the best job in the world would be bringing joy to children through toys.

Miller, 64, now is living his dream.

The former private eye, who sports a Santa-like white beard and red suspenders, is one of 22,000 Pennsylvanians in the state's $3.2 billion toy industry. They make everything from crayons and model airplanes to spinning tops and construction sets.

Though Pennsylvania's presence in the global toy sector is small — 90 percent of children's toys are made overseas — it remains steady, according to industry experts.

This Labor Day, as we pause to honor the grit and determination of the American worker, we take a moment to examine the whimsical creativity that is the trademark of Pennsylvania's toymakers, a group of hard-working men and women for whom a day at work is all about play.

For Miller, returning home to do something as fun as crafting wooden boomerangs, whistles and puzzles in North Charleroi's Channel Craft was too good to be true.

“It's really refreshing. There's such a positive attitude here,” Miller said. “I spent all those years looking at the negative (as a private investigator). It's invigorating to work in a positive place.”

The bustling assembly floor in the company's simple, red brick building along the Monongahela River transports visitors to a less complicated time when a handful of jacks, a box of pickup sticks and a jump rope were all it took to entertain children on a summer afternoon.

Employees saw, sand and assemble hundreds of thousands of wooden toys — from balsa wood airplanes and hobby horses to intricate jigsaw puzzles — each year for domestic and international customers.

In an age of pricey high-tech gadgetry, none of Channel Craft's 100 toys has a motor, battery or microchip. Most sell for less than $10.

It all began in 1983, when founder Dean Helfer Jr. set up shop in the back of an old Ford van, driving to festivals to peddle his wooden toys. He used his grandfather's tools and even slept in the van, which remains parked outside his office window as a reminder of his humble start.

Though the company has grown, its philosophy of selling quality, American-made toys has not changed, he said.

Helfer is hands-on, chatting and joking with workers and stopping to test toys, including some old-time but authentic-sounding wooden train whistles.

The company employs 44 people in a former Army Corps of Engineers facility where the top seller continues to be the boomerang, crafted from Baltic birch with a company promise that it is “tuned, tested and guaranteed to return” to the user when flung into the air.

“It's the ultimate boy toy,” said Helfer, whose company produces 80,000 boomerangs a year. “It's science and history and sport.”

Helfer said the popularity of his toys is proof that simplicity has a place in a complex world.

For him and his employees, it's all about preserving the magic of childhood.

Retired nurse Lisa Bradley said she was looking for a change when she joined Channel Craft three years ago.

“I made the elderly happy; now I make children happy,” said Bradley, 49, of Charleroi. “My granddaughter thinks I work for Santa Claus.”

K'NEX building systems

In 1990, Joel Glickman was sitting at a noisy wedding, looking for ways to pass the time.

He didn't like to dance, so he asked the waitress for a few drink straws to tinker with while everyone else was on the dance floor.

From an evening of playing with those flimsy straws, Glickman gleaned an idea that grew into a multimillion-dollar business — Hatfield-based K'NEX Industries. The company makes the popular flexible rod and connector building systems that children can attach to pulleys, gears and motors to build everything from functional Ferris wheels to crawling creatures with moving tentacles.

Glickman, 74, pitched his idea to the big toymakers, but no one was interested. So he began making the toy parts in a plastics factory his father had opened decades earlier.

Today the company's Montgomery County plant has about 50 workers and 100 presses that churn out more than 2 billion parts a year to ship around the world.

Working for Glickman comes with an invitation to be creative. That's why design manager Michael Klitsch, 41, has spent half his life at the company, devising bigger, better ways for children to learn and play with K'NEX toys — ranging from $10 for a basic kit to $1,000 for one used to build a full-sized, working grandfather clock.

“It's been a very cool ride,” said Klitsch of Trumbauersville in Bucks County.

His 9-year-old twins, Andrew and Nathan, critique his work and appear on boxes of the latest line of K-Force Blasters, which are guns built from K'NEX parts that shoot foam darts.

Klitsch is unapologetically proud when talking about his job.

“When you look at other people's jobs, mine is way cooler,” he said.

Klitsch sometimes draws inspiration from K'NEX fans — some children, some adults — who fill the Internet with extreme K'NEX projects such as a 29-foot-tall functioning roller coaster, a suspension bridge and a 6,000-piece robotic suit.

“The imagination of these people is astounding,” he said. “The time, energy, dedication and money they put into the build is mind-boggling.”

Crayola's animated coloring

Jordan Howell grew up using Crayola crayons but never imagined they would lead to his life's work.

Howell, 30, Crayola's digital/virtual product manager, is in charge of the Easton-based company's latest invention, which lets kids bring drawings to life in animated movies by using the Easy Animation Studio.

“We saw the trend coming when smartphones and tablets got handed down to kids,” said Howell, who says “there's no cooler job for a dad to have than to work at Crayola.

“It's personally fulfilling for me because I have three kids at home,” he said. His children, ages 6, 4 and 2, are his toughest critics, he said.

He has been told he has “the luckiest job in the world” with a company whose website's list of workplace rules is called the “Rules for Our Playground.”

The rules explain that Crayola employees are expected to: “Use Your Manners (Be Respectful of People and Ideas),” “Play Nice and Share (Be Collaborative and Team-based)” and “Be Brave (Be Innovative and Risk-oriented).”

Crayola, which makes 3 billion crayons a year, celebrated its 112th anniversary this year.

Its version of the crayon was invented by cousins Edwin Binney and C. Harold Smith. They transformed their business of making red pigment for barn paint and black pigment for tires into their first box of eight wax crayons that sold for 5 cents in 1903.

The company, which employs about 1,300 people and produces about 60 percent of its products in Pennsylvania, expects big things from its digital offerings.

“Kids are so digital and tech-savvy today,” Howell said. “The sky's the limit.”

Craig Smith is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-380-5646 or csmith@tribweb.com.

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