Person of the Week
Don Paulson: He Knows This Joke
Deep River’s Don Paulson has had a storied career in plastics that allowed him to travel the world and recently landed him in the Plastics Hall of Fame. (Photo by Michelle Parr Paulson )
It is the iconic moment in an iconic movie: the moment in The Graduate when a neighbor, paddling around in a swimming pool, stops long enough to give Dustin Hoffman, playing 20-something Ben Braddock, one-word of career advice: plastics.
Don Paulson took that advice. Don, now 88, devoted his entire professional career to plastics, making such significant contributions to the field that he has just been elected to the Plastics Hall of Fame.
He knows all about the famous line in The Graduate.
“Everybody knows it,” he says, referring to colleagues in the industry. “If he had said medicine or truck driver, nobody would have laughed. There’s just something funny about plastics. It doesn’t have a good reputation.”
Don, who lives in Deep River, wasn’t thinking about reputation when he finished his engineering degree at the University of Minnesota. He recalls that the smart career move would have been to go into the growing field of electronics; instead he thought about something he had seen in a machine shop in his last year of school when he saw someone pouring granules into a compression press. The result was a plastic cup.
The process interested him.
“I liked materials; I was interested in how things were shaped,” Don recalls.
He decided on a career in plastics, working for major corporations like Dow Chemical and General Motors and starting two companies of his own.
Don’s significant contributions to the field came in the area of plastics production. When plastic materials broke or had defects, he says, manufacturers usually thought it had something to do with machine malfunction. Don’s research proved that tinkering with the machine calibration wouldn’t solve the problem; rather four variables that affected plastic itself as it was molded, not machine settings, caused the defects.
The second of the companies Don started, Paulson Training Process, provides instruction, done now through computerized lessons, on how to manage those four variables. Don remains as chairman of the board but his daughter Karen, the youngest of his five children and a Chester resident, is now the president of the company. Don says that it would take 10 years on the production floor to learn by trial and error the things his company’s instruction teaches, cutting years off the learning process.
In most cases, companies purchase the instruction package for their employees, but Don recalls a handwritten letter in pencil from a Vietnamese refugee resettled in this country, asking about the plastics course. The would-be student learned the price was too high, but Don provided the material at no charge in this case. He got a handwritten letter of thanks telling him how happy the man was to be able to answer questions from his co-workers.
Don is aware of the problems plastic waste has created for the environment.
“I am very conscious of the detriment,” he says.
Still he points out how vital plastic is in countless areas of our lives. Automobiles, he notes, have some 350 pounds of plastic in them. Those parts, among other things, make the car lighter and thus more economical on gas.
“I’m talking to you on a plastic telephone,” he points out to a reporter.
Recycling plastic, Don points out, is complicated because different kinds of plastic cannot be recycled together. The recycling process always has to begin with sorting. In all, he says, only some 10 percent of the plastic that could be recycled is actually reprocessed.
“This depends on people’s behavior,” he notes. “I think they are doing a better job of this in Europe.”
Don grew up outside of Minneapolis, Minnesota, served three years in the United States Navy in Hawaii and then followed up his B.S. from the University of Minnesota with a master’s degree at Villanova University. He was still a member of the naval reserve as an instructor at Villanova, teaching not only an engineering course but a course in military law.
“There was no one else to do it,” he says.
All his adult life he has been a sailor, traveling up and down the East Coast from Canada nearly to South America. Now he no longer has a boat but sails with one of his grown children.
For other travels, before the thaw in Russian-United States relations ushered in by Mikhail Gorbachev’s Glasnost, Don and his wife Kathy were part of a group that sailed from Istanbul to the Russian City of Odessa on the Black Sea coast. As they walked along the beach, they smiled at everyone, said good morning but got stony looks in return.
“People were supposed to report talking to a foreigner,” he says.
The he heard someone calling out to him. A teenager, Don thinks 16 or so, was excited to meet someone whose native language was English. The chance encounter led to a long friendship between Don and Kathy and the teen and his family. The teen, now a grown man, his visited the Paulson’s in the United States twice.
Don, who is the author of some 40 papers on plastic production and processing, was named by an industry trade publication as one of the six most important innovators in the field in 1998. He had been mentioned as a candidate for the plastics Hall of Fame several times but nothing came of it. He thought his time had come and gone and didn’t know he had been nominated this time until the telephone call that he had been selected.
As he reflects on the honor, he also reflects on the course of his life.
“I’ve had the best life: travel, family...an industry that fascinated me. It completely changed my life,” he says.