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Worker recalls Edison's essence

While the memory of Thomas Alva Edison continues to fade into the dusty corners of history, his life and work remain fresh in the mind of one Pasco County man. Born 143 years ago last Sunday, the man who illuminated the world with the invention of the electric light bulb was an early role model for Eugene Balstraz, 81, of Bayonet Point. At 16, Balstraz went to work for the Edison Co. as a junior draftsman for $15 a week. One year later, he was promoted to junior engineer and, after 26 years with the company, Balstraz left as a superintendent and chief industrial engineer.

Although he did not work side by side with the late genius, Balstraz said his additional duties with the company's security department put him in many social settings with Edison.

"I was usually in charge when they had a big event," he said. "When he met (Charles) Lindbergh I was there and when he met the king of Siam, I was there."

Balstraz said he also remembers frequent visits by Edison's friends, including Henry Ford and Mark Twain. When Edison's factory burned to the ground in 1916, Ford did not hesitate to write a check for $16-million to help rebuild his friend's laboratory.

Edison was equally generous and caring with his employees, Balstraz said. When people needed help or were sick and needed money, Edison was there to lend it to them.

At the same time, "he was a humorous man who loved a good story.

He and Mark Twain used to get together and swap stories," Balstraz said.

His first encounter with Edison gave Balstraz the first of many privileged glimpses into the inventor's personality. Edison's back was toward the young man as the inventor studied a pair of false teeth, trying to find a way to make them look real.

"Even with a back view, my first impression was that this man could stand in the middle of a world full of people and you could still pick him out. He had a presence that was hard to describe."

Balstraz became more and more familiar with "The Old Man" - a fond nickname employees had for their boss - through social events and Edison's frequent visits to the laboratory to chat with his workers.

As a night security guard, Balstraz also spent time alone in Edison's library, reading his literature and papers.

Edison was liked by most employees, but Balstraz admits that Edison had his share of rivals and enemies. He was sued many times, but never successfully, over patent infringements. But whether his workers liked him or not, they were loyal, Balstraz said. Edison rewarded them by returning the loyalty and paying higher-than-average wages. He also created an enjoyable working atmosphere.

"He had a buoyant smile. If you walked into a room, he was like a beacon of light," Balstraz said.

Balstraz said Edison was unlike any other employer when it came to hiring his employees. He was the first to give psychiatric tests to applicants, asking them questions that would reveal their thought processes and their ability to handle certain situations.

"He wanted to see different thinkings," Balstraz said. "He encouraged people to look at things from different angles because that's what he did."

Balstraz's big moment with the husky, white-haired man came after he had worked for the company for about two years. Edison was to receive an award from the copper industry at its annual convention, and Balstraz had the task of duplicating Edison's library into a special display. He did such a good job that Edison asked to meet him.

"He talked to me in this high, squeaky voice because he was partially deaf," Balstraz said. "He looked at me and said, 'Tell you what I'm going to do,' and I thought great, here comes a raise. Then he called to Meadowcroft (Edison's secretary) to bring him 'The Book.' They both signed it and the old man handed it to me and said this will be worth something someday."

The Boy's Life of Edison, written by William Meadowcroft and published in 1911, has weathered the years well. The signatures in black ink of Edison and his assistant have not faded, even though the pages have turned a light peach and the dark blue cardboard covers are slightly frayed. Balstraz said he probably will pass the book on to his grandson, who took second place in a contest with an essay on Edison.

Balstraz, like his boss, never graduated from college. He spent most of his working years furthering his education by reading and attending night school. He attended the Newark College of Engineering in 1930 and 1939, but did not earn a degree even though he returned as a teacher during World War II. The college honored him last September with an honorary bachelor of science degree.

Balstraz and his second wife, Betty, moved to Pasco County 13 years ago, after living in Miami since 1954.

His material reminders of Edison are few: He has his book and a special framed certificate making him an associate member of the Edison Pioneers, an exclusive club formed in 1918 for those who worked with Edison.

The pioneers originated with "The Insomnia Squad," a term company employees used when referring to Edison's closest assistants, men who often spent long, continuous hours working to put the inventor's thoughts into tangible form.

Inscribed on the certificate are the principles of Edison Pioneers, men who "pay tribute to his transcendent genius" and "bear testimony to his achievements."

Balstraz takes this responsibility to heart. He is concerned that younger generations are not interested in keeping the memories of the great early inventor alive.

"It's there (Edison's memory) and you know it, but it's not paramount," Balstraz said, wistfully. "I'm not trying to sell Edison, I just don't think we should forget him."

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