Louis Soltanoff died March 5, 2013, in Redding, Connecticut. He was 95 years old, a man who cheerfully viewed the world as a place in need of innovation.
Lou and his brother were raised over a series of candy and toy stores their parents operated. Learnedness was prized in the immigrant family. His brother became a dentist, and Lou became a mechanical engineer with an unabashed sweet tooth. He designed the Atlas launch system for Mercury astronauts, and the Monorail for the 1964 World’s Fair.
On his own time, he designed for himself. One of his last concepts — maybe inspired by the candy store beginnings — was a series of drawings for an invention that could distribute mix-ins evenly through pints of ice cream. Sadly, Ben and Jerry’s did not purchase it. Happily, they gave him a year’s worth of free samples.
In the Marine Corps, always crafting and engineering, Lou worked on accommodations for amphibious landing craft. Those were years he didn’t speak of afterwards: South Pacific and Guadalcanal. During a leave home, his unit was reassigned to Iwo Jima. Most of his men died there. This, too, he did not speak of.
He returned to a corporate career in engineering, and a passionate career in after-hours inventing at home. His children recall explosive noises rising from the basement while he worked on a paper-making device, a type-setting machine, a mine sweeper. The prototypes were always right on the cusp of spectacular patenting; the timing was always seconds from success.
Yet Lou never lost his resilience. He believed utterly in his can-opening belt, and so did his family — even when inventiveness led to unforeseen controversy. After the war, he sent one project inquiry to the Soviet Union (“we were on the same side,” he explained). Years later, during the Cold War, his engineering firm uncovered the correspondence, and relocated his office desk into the hallway, in case Communist monitoring was necessary.
At home, he reveled in corniness and unorthodoxy. “Are you hungry?” someone would ask him, and he would always, always answer: “I’m not hungry, I’m Jewish.” At the dinner parties he and his wife hosted, when enough was enough socially, he would disappear into the bathroom and re-emerge pointedly in pajamas. And when Amadeus, the movie about Mozart, came out, he was heard to murmur: “Loved the film, hated the music.”
To the end, though, he was devoted to his family in a traditional way. After he had begun to fail — after he could no longer remember that he wasn’t hungry, he was Jewish — he still expressed fresh joy every day, when he realized that the woman beside him, a most beautiful creation, was his wife.
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