Millions of dollars can't wipe away pain

THE BALTIMORE SUN

QUEENSTOWN -- Five years ago, Robert W. Kearns walked away from $30 million offered by Ford. Last week, he simply shrugged when he won $21 million from Chrysler.

What Mr. Kearns wishes he had is the time he's lost.

For 32 years, Mr. Kearns has relentlessly pursued automakers worldwide to get proper credit for inventing the intermittent windshield wiper. In the process, he saw his marriage collapse, suffered a nervous breakdown and consumed every waking moment steeped in lawsuits.

Some -- even his daughter -- have questioned his sanity. Few understand why nothing will placate his outrage at automakers that bypassed him -- an unknown inventor -- and used his design on their cars.

"It's got nothing to do with money," he says.

Mr. Kearns was born 68 years ago in the shadow of a Catholic church and, beyond, a Ford manufacturing plant, the lifeblood of his hometown, River Rouge, Mich., near Detroit.

Today, he feuds with God and automakers in the solitude of his farmhouse on the Wye River on the Eastern Shore.

"Thou shalt not steal. You said that," he implores his maker. "How come I have to carry the burden?"

Mr. Kearns believed in God, country and the Big Three when he invented the pausing wipers, now standard equipment on virtually every automobile on the planet.

But his greatest achievement would ultimately be the source of his greatest suffering.

"I don't think anybody -- nobody -- understands the pain," he says, choking back tears. "What did I do wrong?"

Celebrating wedding

On a balmy August evening in 1953, intermittent wipers didn't even exist. Mr. Kearns was celebrating his wedding, ensconced in an Ontario chateau, when a champagne bottle changed history.

The cork blasted him in his left eye. His wife, Phyllis, rushed out of their private bathroom in a lace slip to find her pajama-clad husband covered in blood.

Mr. Kearns, then a neophyte engineer, lost most of his sight in his left eye. But the accident lifted a veil. It made him think about his loss: the mechanics of the eye, the opening and closing of the lid, the hesitation in the motion, the meaning of the design. "God doesn't have eyelids move continuously. They blink."

He set out to make wipers that blink, too.

The idea moved glacially as Mr. Kearns gathered knowledge, working toward a doctorate in engineering while teaching at Wayne State University in Detroit. Nurturing his theory, he built a laboratory in his basement, separated from his wife's laundry room by a glass-paneled office. Under fluorescent lights, he cultivated his ideas with voltmeters, capacitors, relays and oscilloscopes.

Day, and often in the middle of the night, he slipped down into the family basement, logging his findings in 23 300-page books. "Engineering was his life," Mrs. Kearns recalls.

"The kids tell me I came home and went straight down to the basement," he says. "But that's false propaganda."

Mr. Kearns began with experiments on a large pane of glass, then graduated to a Dodge dashboard and windshield, salvaged from a junkyard. "Of course," his former wife says, "if it rained, we dropped everything and ran outside, got in the car and ran" a test.

By October 1963, Mr. Kearns' maroon Ford Galaxie convertible was ready for the real thing: a demonstration at the Ford plant in Dearborn, Mich. Cupped in his palm was the object of countless trials, late night coffee and most of his spare cash -- a red intermittent wiper control box labeled "Do Not Open."

He knew enough not to share trade secrets.

Ford officials seemed intrigued but noncommittal. When they invited him back, a dozen engineers greeted him at the brick arch entrance, armed with questions and a demonstration of their own. From a distance, they rolled out a Mercury with an intermittent wiper under development.

The mutual admiration society ended there. The engineers wanted answers from Mr. Kearns, and he complied, unraveling the circuit board mystery he had mastered. He thought he would be welcomed into the Ford fold. He thought he would be the one to manufacture the revolutionary new wiper and sell it to Detroit. Instead, he was sent away -- with no assurances of another meeting.

As much as he loved his invention, Mr. Kearns still had faith in Ford. He always had faith in the giant auto plant that captured his childhood imagination.

"There it was," he says, lifting his arms to the heavens. "It was providing all the employment. What does it tell you in the Bible? 'Love thy neighbor.' "

Each time the engineers beckoned for more information, Mr. Kearns couldn't say no. He would return willingly. He smiles ruefully: "Have you ever been in love and been rejected? And then gone back? Well, what can I say? That's what I did."

Finally, when they stopped calling him for good in 1965, he went quietly.

Ford hit the market with the first electronic intermittent wiper in 1969. Mr. Kearns received neither credit nor compensation for his patented invention, but continued to believe he had not been betrayed.

Until July 1976.

By then, Mr. Kearns had built himself a new basement lab in Gaithersburg, where he moved his wife and six children and settled into an engineer's job at the National Bureau of Standards.

He was out from under the Ford shadow; he did not know Mercedes would cast another.

Mr. Kearns' eldest son, Dennis, brought home the first tangible proof that his father had lost control of his invention: an intermittent wiper control box from the German automaker.

Mr. Kearns reserved judgment until he had examined the electronic entrails. "It was a copy," he says. In his basement dwelling, it hit him like a sledgehammer. Even the great Mercedes was using his design. "The message is," he says, "Bob Kearns doesn't count. He's nothing. He doesn't exist."

Nor was he the same man anymore. Mr. Kearns began to withdraw within himself, at times unaware of even his wife's presence. He would look up, and suddenly she would be there.

"I'm not sure how to describe it," his son says. "He was different than I was used to. Then he went for a walk and didn't come back."

Without bothering to tell anyone, Mr. Kearns boarded a Greyhound bus, laboring to breathe. He was convinced that he was bound for Australia and that former President Nixon had commissioned him to invent an electric car.

He was having a nervous breakdown.

Mr. Kearns recalls ending up somewhere in Tennessee, wandering in the middle of the night. Nothing made sense. Through his one good eye, he saw only distortions -- vague threats, mayhem and a red box labeled "Do Not Touch," not unlike the intermittent red box he had once held in his palm with great expectations.

Instinctively, he reached for the box. It was an emergency telephone, and moments after he lifted the receiver, the state police arrived, discovered the FBI was looking for him and notified his family.

Years of therapy

Mr. Kearns spent the next two weeks in Montgomery County General Hospital, and except for a four-year hiatus, he has been in therapy ever since. "Mercedes hurt, Ford hurt, I've got all these hurts," he says. "Did they have to cheat a little kid from River Rouge?"

Mr. Kearns would never invent again. He would never hold another job. From 1977 on, he would identify himself on his resume as "litigant." The little kid from River Rouge was launching a legal blitzkrieg against the world's automakers.

Nothing else mattered -- not even his marriage, which disintegrated with almost every combative phone call over Mr. Kearns' private war. Mrs. Kearns knew her husband all too well. He would never relent. Like his inventions, his lawsuits would come to dominate his life.

In 1980, her nerves were frayed, and she left him.

"I just could not handle the lawyers and yelling and upset," she says. "I am a peaceful person."

Mr. Kearns grimly forged ahead. He would not be pacified, although he did buy a 1978 Ford pickup (without intermittent wipers). His attorneys threw up their hands in agony when he rejected Ford's $30 million settlement offer in 1990. He had no intentions of compromising. He took it to the jury, which awarded him $5.2 million, but Ford agreed to pay $10.2 million rather than face another round of litigation with the contentious inventor.

"He told me from day one, 'This is not about money,' and no lawyer believed it," Mrs. Kearns says.

Mr. Kearns was even more relentless against Chrysler Corp., acting as his own attorney. The U.S. Supreme Court last week disturbed Mr. Kearns by letting stand a lower court ruling that had awarded him about $21 million in damages and interest. He did not get what he really wanted -- a ruling that would force the auto industry to buy the wipers from him.

"How many steaks can you eat in a day?" he quips. "What's that going to do for me? I'm sorry, but what's that going to do for me?"

Despite his monetary victories, Mr. Kearns' debts have mounted. To date, he has spent $11 million in attorney fees, he owes $2.2 million to banks, and lawyers are claiming another $11 million. Which explains in large part why Mr. Kearns gave up on attorneys in March 1992 and began to represent himself. U.S. District Court Judge Avern Cohn was less understanding.

"The court has had the opportunity to observe the conduct of Kearns in lengthy proceedings already concluded," the judge said in October 1992. ". . . Kearns has been repeatedly advised by the court that he should obtain legal counsel. The several cases present complex issues and difficult legal questions which are, in the court's view, beyond Kearns' competence to handle."

Even his daughter, Maureen, hired an attorney to challenge his "competency." Or, as he says matter-of-factly, "Maureen wanted the courts to declare her dad was nuts."

Wielding a letter from his psychiatrist, Mr. Kearns squelched that family skirmish. "I blew her away."

At 5 feet 6 inches tall, Mr. Kearns hardly cuts a threatening pose. His hands shake and his shoulders stoop beneath a shock of white hair and baby blue eyes. There is no hint of his single-minded tenacity, a legacy perhaps of the toe-the-line nuns from grade school and his mother, Mary, a taskmaster who clenched her fists for a photograph when she was 12.

From outward appearances, there are no hard edges to Mr. Kearns' two-story farm house, either. Yet inside, it is not a home. It is a bunker on a war footing. He sleeps on a sagging air mattress on his bedroom floor. Garments hang in unpacked U-Haul boxes. A naked Christmas tree sheds pine needles in neglect.

A legal machine

What he lacks in niceties, however, Mr. Kearns more than compensates for in sheer volume. The titans of the auto industry are up against a one-man legal machine: 32 four-drawer file cabinets form a blockade down the middle of his office, offering subjects such as "Copies of Ferrari Copies." Black binders are stacked in rows atop the cabinets. The walls are adorned with war strategy -- monthly planners and a photocopy of "Rules of Civil Procedure." Five desks with three computer terminals line one side of the office.

Documents cover every corner of the house, assaulting his study, kitchen, even the foyer. A box of supplies is splayed open: label stickers, paper clips, pens, staple removers.

Furniture is an afterthought. A brown, leather wing-backed chair in the library faces no direction in particular, but contains in its lap a book, "Natural Healing." Other casual reading scattered about includes "Clarence Darrow for the Defense" and "Learning Legal Rules."

"I came here to fight lawsuits, not to make friends or have fun," Mr. Kearns says.

But he has allowed himself one diversion: He sent a Valentine's Day card to a lady acquaintance, inviting her to an evening of dancing. A verdict is pending.

Meanwhile, he is taking a paralegal course at Chesapeake Community College up the road and awaiting word from the University of Maryland law school, to which he has applied.

But for Mr. Kearns, there is really only one thing in life: the lawsuits. Nothing else matters as he prepares a dozen appeals to the U.S. Court of Appeals. Not the loneliness. Nor the money.

"I didn't get a contract to build [the wipers]," he says. "That's all I ever wanted."

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
59°