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A SPLASH OF FAME

The Baltimore Sun

Oxford - Forty years ago, a young Tim Kearns tossed a baseball into his glove impatiently as his inventor-father tinkered with this bizarre contraption, an automobile windshield-wiper arm attached to the inside of a fish tank. Not surprisingly, Tim was growing irritated with his father's insistence that he pay attention rather than play ball.

Turns out Dad was on to something. Friday night, Tim Kearns, at 51 an architect and two-term commissioner of this Eastern Shore town, will be in the audience at Easton's Avalon Theatre as a major Hollywood movie based on his dad's life kicks off the inaugural Chesapeake Film Festival. He and his five siblings are also major characters in the film - although the baseball has been turned into a more photogenic basketball.

Tim Kearns, celebrity, watching Greg Kinnear play his father up there on the big screen in Universal Pictures' Flash of Genius. Who would have thought it?

Well, all the Kearns did, it turns out. "We had always laughed about it, since we were little kids, that my dad's life would make a great movie," says Tim Kearns, fully enjoying the minor glow this brush with the Hollywood spotlight is affording him.

Not that Tim, or any of his three brothers and two sisters, fully appreciated what was going on at the time. As an amateur inventor with a strong sense of family, Bob Kearns was determined to involve all his children with what he always thought of as the family business.

One invention in particular, he was convinced, would bring the Kearns family both fortune and fame.

That invention, which would eventually become the intermittent wiper that keeps our car windshields clear and streak-free during even the lightest of rains, never exactly became the family business. But it did become the family obsession, as Bob Kearns, who died in February 2005, spent more than two decades in court, arguing that big car companies like Ford and Chrysler had stolen his invention and claimed it as their own.

Determined to get the credit he felt was his due, scoffing at big-money settlement offers that failed to acknowledge the wrong he felt had been done him, Kearns waged the sort of protracted one-man war against overwhelming odds that Hollywood screenwriters love. He served as his own attorney, dragged car parts into court, spent years sorting through boxes upon boxes of paperwork, pored through volumes of legal proceedings. He was ruthless in pursuit of what he believed was justice, and wasn't interested in compromise.

Bob Kearns eventually was proven right. He won more than $30 million from Ford and Chrysler - although it was at the cost of his marriage and, at times, his own sanity.

Today, sitting in the 120-year-old home he shares with his wife of 11 years, Kim, and their 8-year-old daughter, Claire, Tim Kearns can laugh at some of his father's more outrageous antics, like flying off to Ireland to avoid a process server or simply disappearing for weeks at a time, going on what his family called "walkabouts." But he can also smile at some of the hard-earned lessons his father taught him, like the importance of doing the right thing and not accepting a lie as the truth. And he can tear up a little when asked to sum up his dad's legacy.

"I think he was a great father," Tim Kearns says after a moment's pause. "He instilled in me values. He stood by those values, and he made his family uphold those same values. But isn't that what you're supposed to do?"

Bob Kearns was an engineer by training who, during World War II, served in the Office of Strategic Services, forerunner to the CIA. He was, according to his son, a man of incessant curiosity and strong convictions, who never quite got over the wariness that his OSS training instilled in him. All of which, Tim Kearns says, explains why his father was an inventor who demanded his due, and was convinced others were trying to keep it from him.

"He was somewhat zealous, a little deranged, yet an incredibly focused public person," the younger Kearns says. Adds his wife, Kim, with her husband's nodding assent, "He was a force to be reckoned with. If you got in his way ... I was scared of him. He was just a little guy."

"That was the OSS man in him," Tim Kearns adds, and they both laugh.

The Kearns family was living in Detroit when Bob came up with the concept of the intermittent wiper. The idea, he often said, came in a moment's inspiration - a "flash of genius," if you will - when he asked himself why a wiper couldn't work in the same way an eyelid blinks, moving at intervals instead of constantly.

As recounted in the film, Kearns, working in the early-1960s, spent months trying to solve the problem. The car companies had been doing similar studies for years, but couldn't come up with a model that worked in extremes of both heat and cold. Kearns' model did, and when he took it to Ford, officials there seemed impressed and ready to talk business. But later, Kearns was told they were no longer interested, that the company was going with a wiper model that had been developed in house.

Years later, in 1976, while living in Gaithersburg and working as an engineer for the Bureau of Standards, Kearns took apart an electric circuit for an intermittent wiper, and found it was almost identical to the one he had invented. Shortly thereafter, he suffered a nervous breakdown and boarded a bus, convinced he was on a mission for former President Nixon. The police picked him up in Tennessee, and his family sent him to the psychiatric ward at Montgomery General Hospital.

He came out of the hospital a few weeks later, and spent the rest of his life trying to gain credit for his invention. Certainly, the money was important; his dream had always been to start a company that would build the wiper motors and sell them to the car manufacturers. But even more, he wanted the automakers to acknowledge that he had invented the intermittent wiper, and that they had knowingly stolen his idea.

His dad, Tim Kearns says, saw himself as fighting for what was right, as a champion for those whose work, whose ideas, had been claimed by someone else. Many people wrote letters of encouragement, thanking him for taking on the fight. Bob Kearns took those letters, and that mission, seriously.

"It was what he was," Tim Kearns says. "It was what he was determined to do. He looked at it in those terms, that it was something bigger than Bob Kearns."

He eventually was awarded $10 million from Ford and $20 million from Chrysler, with the courts holding that the carmakers had unintentionally violated his patents. They never did acknowledge any wrongdoing, which to Bob Kearns' mind meant the victory was not complete.

Much of the money Kearns received was used to pay his legal bills. But there were other costs as well. He and his wife, Phyllis (played by Lauren Graham in the film), went through a bitter divorce in 1980; 10 years later, he would be sentenced to 120 days in jail, in part for reneging on alimony payments. Even after his legal battles were over, his sense of perspective never quite righted itself; according to his Washington Post obituary, he would often call his children and attorney to discuss ways of reclaiming his patents, which had lapsed years earlier.

In his later years, Bob Kearns spent most of his time in a house on the Wye River - not very far from Oxford, where Tim and Kim had settled in 1998. Given how close they lived to one another, it's no surprise that a lot of Bob rubbed off on Tim, the second of his six children.

Kinnear, Tim Kearns says, captures his father to an almost eerie degree, right down to his habit of scratching his neck with his middle finger while he's thinking. He and his brothers and sisters posed with Kinnear while visiting the movie's Toronto set, and in the picture, Tim says, it's like Bob Kearns is still around. Flash of Genius, he says, does more than right by his father and his legacy.

Kim Kearns, 44, smiles when asked about the best parts of Bob that she sees in Tim. "I'd say the honesty, and the pursuit of what's right," she says, looking straight at her husband.

And the worst? "The passive-aggressive behavior," she says, and they both break into a hearty laugh.

"That's a good one," Tim Kearns says. "I have to admit, that's a good one." festival schedule

The inaugural Chesapeake Film Festival runs Friday through Sunday at three venues in Easton: The Avalon Theatre, 40 E. Dover St.; The Academy Art Museum, 106 South St.; and the Historical Society of Talbot County auditorium, 17 S. Washington St. Expected highlights of the more-than-25 films and shorts programs being screened include:

Opening night: Flash of Genius, 8 p.m. at the Avalon, with Tim Kearns and director Marc Abraham in attendance. Preceded by a 6:30 p.m. cocktail party. Tickets are $75 for the party and screening, $25 for the screening only.

Saturday: William Castle's 1959 The House on Haunted Hill will be shown at 8:30 p.m. at the historical society auditorium, accompanied by a live performance from Easton's Arthouse Live theatrical troupe.

Sunday: The festival closes with a 7 p.m. showing of director Ed Harris' Appaloosa, starring Viggo Mortensen and Harris as hired guns brought in to clean up a New Mexico town. Jeremy Irons and Renee Zellweger also star.

Festival tickets: Except for the opening and closing films, they are $10 at the door, $8 in advance. All-festival passes are $125, while $60 will get you a weekend pass, which covers all Saturday and Sunday screenings.

More information, including a complete schedule: chesapeakefilmfestival.org or 410-822-5089

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