William the Conquerer

   In the raw, formative years of the 20th century, William Dzus immigrated to the United States from the Russian Ukraine. He, like the rest of his boat mates, had an American dream and he was determined to bring it to reality. He'd been an active member of the work force on the family farm since he was four, but how his future would transpire was his destiny alone, Wrote Dzus' biographer Ronald Bern ("An American in the Making"), "When a man of purpose and fortitude has a goal to achieve, he somehow finds the nerve, the luck, and the humility to help himself." William possessed all three attributes and forged them with an innate and indomitable will to succeed. For him, no adverse situation or pretzel-like problem was unsolvable for very long and what he learned about human nature as a boy and in the school of hard knocks during the Depression, prepared him for life's nasty business. ..as well as a brilliant future.

The Ukrainian work ethic was omnipresent. Time spent otherwise was considered foolish and frivolous, sinful, maybe. Nonetheless, boys will be boys. William saved up on the sly and got himself a cheap penknife that set him back three pennies. Soon he became adept at his craft and when he carved a tiny, intricate tabernacle for the delight of his grandmother, his father yanked it out of William's hands, threw it on the floor and stomped down hard. That moment, the son promised himself he would surely leave this dead end life, and soon, for the boredom and tedium of farm life would never satisfy him.

Many Ukrainians had already gone to America, but a few of them, unable to adjust to the new world and its vastly different customs and mores, returned to the home turf. Whenever someone did, William was on him with a flurry of questions about the magical land because that is where he wanted to make his life. Inadvertently, his father accelerated the process. When Will was 17, he built a bicycle completely from wood, It was a little noisy but it ran along just fine. William's father found the cycle and smashed it, too. Frustrated and longing to be free to explore his destiny, William told the family he wanted to leave and go to America. Soon, he had his ticket out and was boarding the train for the seaport of Bremen, Germany. Yes, the old man cried when his son stepped up and into the passenger car. William had prepared for the venture with a change of clothes and $25 stuffed in his sock.

It was 1913 when the young man made the Atlantic crossing, a hellish sojourn that for him took place deep in steerage, the stomach of the ship, a frightful, foul-smelling place filled with the sick and their constant moans. He tended to them the best. he could. Ten days later, the ship landed at Halifax. Nova Scotia. William would spend the next months living in Toronto, then wound up in Newark, NJ, via New York City. In 1913, Newark was assuming the mien of an industrial stronghold.

William was a virtual sole survivor. He knew no one, had no family, and had no money. Imagine yourself in this position. Instead of locking up solid, he got a kitchen police job at a restaurant, 7 days, 12 hours a day, for 85 cents a day. Welcome to America!

He then moved to a house-wrecking crew. They only needed him six days a week for ten hours every day. See? America was full of goodness. By daylight, he was a hod-carrier. He learned English at night school and wanted to align himself with the mechanical trades, After a small personal evolution. William was working as a lathe operator at the Crackavila Dynamo Company in Orange. N.J, pulling dawn a fat 32 Cents an hour. He loved it.

As time marched. William established a small automobile repair garage, fueled by an innate ability. He could look at a piece of equipment and immediately visualize how to make it better or work more efficiently. In 1918, he filed a patent application on a lathe attachment, and took it the Handy Lathe Company. He was told the company wasn't interested, but curiously his drawings were not returned to him. When he spoke to officials at Handy, they offered a possible royalty deal. William was ignorant of such proceedings and pulled out, The lathe attachment never went into production.

The thinker could not stop. He secured the patent rights on an automobile radiator fan, the first practical air-cooling system for cars. His ignorance of the business world foiled him and he dropped the project. He tried again, designing the first automotive grille as protection for the radiator from stones hurled up by other vehicles. Again, the door to fame and fortune closed on his foot. An established company owner, a man of substance in William's mind, proclaimed that it was frivolous and unneeded. He needed to hear no more, but it never occurred to him that the guy might be absolutely wrong. When his attorney advised that final payment was due on his latest idea, he refused to spend the money and abandoned the idea.

By now, it was the Depression was raging full. Rather than repairing cars, if they still had them, his clientele were more concerned with putting a potato on the table and keeping the roof over their heads rather than squandering what little money they had on personal transportation. William closed the doors to his sanctum for good in 1929. Dzus then went to work as a toolmaker in the fuselage department of the Fairchild Aircraft Company in Farmingdale, New York. At the time, the switch from wood to metal aircraft construction was an epiphany, but there were lots of teething problems. Drawing the light metal alloy through a die produced the frame components, and though it worked fine often the dies scratched the metal deeply enough to where the intrusions became stress risers and then cracks when exposed to the constant rigors of operation. Dzus unkinked the problem by applying a coat of lacquer to the dies, thus isolating them from the surface of the extrusions.

By 1931, William had designed and built a die that which formed aircraft window frames rather than doing it the old way of cutting, fitting, and welding, thus saving time and money. That same year, he observed a military exercise, watching planes take off and land, looking for weaknesses to challenge his fertile mind. He heard a lot of rattling as the planes touched down, and traced it to the cowlings, the removable metal sections, that housed the engine. None of them were securely attached to the structure of the plane. The repertoire included fasteners in the shape of a diaper pin. a mushroom­shaped latch fastener, and a trunk latch type. William envisioned a fastener that would prevent the metal from vibrating and eventually hardening from this activity; the hardened metal became brittle and ultimately, the piece would fail.

His panacea had three basic qualities; strength, safety, and simplicity. It was easy to lock and unlock in either direction and required only a quarter of a turn. The hook was that the fastener was self-locking by virtue of a recess in the cam that allowed the drawn spring wire to fall in place behind it. Dzus produced 26 sets of fasteners for an experimental aircraft. The set-up worked so well that thecompany leaned heavily on William to give up the patent or get the hell out. William would not bend. He extended his middle finger and told the company to rotate He would open a machine shop after his own regard. Not long after, Fairchild invited him back, sorely missing his inventor's genius. He was quick to realize that the company was flopping and was able to purchase his sought-after machine-shop equipment at auction. On April 26, 1932, the Dzus Fastener Company began in a garage on Hawley Avenue in West Islip, New York.

Dzus needed operating cash, and the goodwill extended by a salesman at the Hartford Screw Machine Company, ensured that he would get it. When Dzus was refused credit on the assumption that he would be a bad risk, the salesman told management that he would personally be responsible for whatever Dzus could not repay. Faith in the American entrepreneurial spirit prevailed and the company soon moved to larger digs on Hawley Avenue to accommodate a blossoming business. Meanwhile, the customer list grew large, but none was more forthcoming than the military. The Dzus Fastener Company really came into its own in 1939 when President Roosevelt asked for 50,000 aircraft to counterbalance the inevitable Axis threat.

During this time, Dzus suffered everything from an ex-employee who sued him, contending that the fastener idea was a joint effort. Dzus won the case. His biggest hurdle, however, was convincing the powers that be that his company was a viable outlet for the raw materials specified by the Controlled Materials Program. Then he faced the espionage charge involving one of his employees as well as a time-stealing patent investigation instituted by a member of the US Senate. In the end, though, Dzus got all the material he needed.

So how does an aircraft fastener become world-renowned? Young guys returning from combat began building land-based fighters called hot rods. They'd experienced the virtues of the Dzus fastener during combat and deduced that it would offer the ultimate in utility and simplicity for souped-up street cars and all-out racing applications. You know the rest.


Ro McGonegal