D-M-E, MUSEUM REAP BENEFITS OF MARRA'S ZEAL

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This Thursday night, for once, Frank S. Marra will not be the master of ceremonies at the Plastics Hall of Fame banquet. The reason? He's being inducted himself.

For the past decade, Marra's name has been closely linked to the Plastics Hall of Fame. The institution was launched at the 1973 National Plastics Exposition. But when interest started to wane in the 1980s, Marra and a handful of industry veterans stepped in to create a group called the Plastics Academy to administer the hall.

``It was our job to rejuvenate it,'' said Marra, who serves as chairman of the academy.

Marra, 69, has a charismatic personality, deep voice and quick, often offbeat sense of humor — exactly the type to make a good master of ceremonies.

Not this year.

``I'll not be on the podium or on the stage. I'll be sitting in the audience with the rest of the inductees. I'll be enjoying dinner with the rest of the folks and my family.''

Marra has kick-started much more than the Plastics Hall of Fame in his 48-year career. He helped take D-M-E Co. from a Midwestern mold components maker to a national, then global, force. He chaired a task force that raised money to build Ferris State University's Plastics Engineering Center in Big Rapids, Mich., considered one of the best programs in the country.

Joel Galloway, who retired in 1993 as dean of Ferris State's College of Technology, said: ``Frank Marra is a master at laying out the vision of what could happen, and with it, he brings the support of people with him. When Frank Marra gets the picture and makes the commitment, something's going to happen. He is not going to give up, he's not going to go away. Frank Marra will get it done.''

The son of immigrants from Italy, Marra was born in Clarksburg, W.Va. When he was a year old, his father — a coal miner —moved the family to Detroit and took a job as a toolmaker in the automotive industry.

Young Frank decided to follow in his father's footsteps. His schooling as a mold maker gave Marra the respect for a good, practical education that fueled his volunteer work for Ferris State. He went to Detroit's Wilbur Wright Vocational High School, splitting his time between school and work as an apprentice toolmaker. After serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II, Marra went to Lawrence Technological University in Southfield, Mich., earning a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering.

He hooked up with Ted Quarnstrom, a Swedish immigrant who founded Detroit Mold Engineering (D-M-E) in 1942. Quarnstrom originated the idea of standardized mold bases for injection molding, as a better idea than individual bases built to order.

When Marra graduated, ``There were 90 zillion engineers,'' he said. Quarnstrom wanted a young engineer who could write. Marra had been editor of his college newspaper.

``So I took a job at a buck-and-a-half an hour at this small company,'' he said.

D-M-E employed about 20 then. Sales were under $1 million. When Marra left in 1983, D-M-E employed more than 1,000 and had sales of $160 million.

The late Quarnstrom was ``a classic inventor type,'' Marra recalled. ``He expected and got 24 hours a day, seven-days-a-week out of himself and anybody that worked with him. I remember getting phone calls on a Sunday afternoon at 2 o'clock. My wife said, `Who's that?' I said `It's Ted. He's got an idea and wants to talk about it.' So I got in my car and drove to the office.''

Marra served in the Korean War, then rejoined D-M-E. While most mold shops stay small, D-M-E kept growing, figuring out how to mass-produce mold parts that largely remained custom-made, even in the 1950s.

Marra loved the work.

``I always felt that the mold maker is really the key to the entire plastics industry. I always say the mold is the `heart' of the industry. I've seen good molds run in old machines, and with marginal material, and still make good parts.''

Marra helped D-M-E extend beyond just mold bases to other components, including ejector pins, probes, cartridge heaters, and slide retainer clips. Standardization cut the time required to produce a mold cavity from 15-20 weeks to just a few weeks.

VSI Corp. bought the firm from Quarnstrom in 1961. In the 1960s and 1970s, D-M-E expanded production into Europe and Latin America. Marra was named D-M-E president. He started the I.T. Quarnstrom Foundation to raise money for mold maker training. The foundation is now administered by SPE.

D-M-E also wanted to support a Michigan college, and centered on Ferris State. Marra was able to lure industry leaders to the fund-raising campaign.

``In a matter of about two-and-a-half to three years, we raised a little over $4 million. Not one penny came from any state or federal agency,'' Marra said.

Marra became VSI president in 1982. The next year, he was named senior vice president of Fairchild Corp., which acquired VSI. He retired in 1985 and formed Marra International Associates, a consulting firm.