When Don L. Peters walked away from the Kansas wheat fields in 1952, he intended to come back some day — until he caught the blow molding bug in Bartlesville, Okla.
Meeting a good woman also helped keep him off the farm. But at Phillips Petroleum Co., Peters developed moving mold sections and die shaping, making it possible to blow mold new shapes.
So how did Don L. Peters, a farm boy with a college degree in soils, become known as "Mr. Blow Molding," an expert in this most synthetic of things, plastic?
The story begins on his father's wheat farm 35 miles south of Wichita. He remembers his father, the late Lucian Peters, as a "self-reliant, very talented and industrious farmer" who taught himself how to tear apart engines on the equipment.
Don Peters went off to World War II. In 1945, he was part of the 38th Infantry Division, known as the Avengers of Bataan, that retook the Philippines from Japan. Just three years earlier, thousands of Americans and Filipinos had died during the infamous Bataan Death March to a prison camp.
After the war, Peters went to Oklahoma State University.
He planned for a life as a farmer. In fact, he did return to the wheat fields for a year after graduation. Then he got lonely.
"I had buddies, and we used to run around to all the neighboring cities looking for females. It cost us a lot of sleep," he said.
In rural Kansas, the single life can be pretty bleak. The nearest town, Oxford, had just 800 residents.
Finally, Peters moved to the big city, Bartlesville.
"I never really intended to stay very long." He got a laboratory job at Phillips, "fully intending to meet the right girl and take her back to farm."
He met the girl, June, and got married in 1956. She was a Bartlesville native and wasn't interested in leaving. Around the same time, Phillips transferred Peters out of his boring lab job and over to the Plastics Technical Center. He got interested. Today, 36 patents later, at age 76, he still works three days a week at Phillips.
Peters had chanced upon the dawn of large, blow molded polyethylene parts. Automotive gas tanks. Garbage cans. Industrial drums. The atmosphere at PTC was intense, with people working nights and weekends.
Phillips had just developed technology to make high density polyethylene and polypropylene.
"Everything was still to be learned about it and how to process it. That's why there were so many inventions and patents to come about, because it was a new field — certainly ripe for good ideas," Peters said.
At PTC in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Peters was assigned to the injection molding department. Under supervisor John Scott, the team raced the extrusion group to see who could develop a blow molding machine to make big parts.
Peters climbed the ladder at PTC, becoming principal engineer in 1984.
Sam Belcher, a blow molding consultant who nominated him to the Plastics Hall of Fame, said Peters shares his knowledge, and opinions, freely. At the same time, Peters has retained his soft-spoken demeanor.
"You can tell Don what a great job he does, and he just kind of ignores you. He just does his job," Belcher said.
One of his crowning inventions was to put moving sections in blow molds. After a parison is blown into a mold, the sections slide into place, forming an integrated, hollow part, like a handle.
You see the result every time you get a drink of water from the golf course cooler or pass a road construction site. Millions of round Igloo and Rubbermaid coolers have the handle on top.
The research started in the 1960s. The blow molded plastic cooler was brand-new. But the lid was either metal or thermoformed plastic. Igloo wanted to injection mold the handle piece, then somehow insert mold it onto a blow molded lid. Peters suggested blow molding it all as a single, hollow part.
But how to force the material into the handle section? First, move special mold sections out of the way. The bottom of the parison is closed off, and some air pressure goes inside. Once the mold closes, the parison blooms out into the large, open cavity, then the mold sections close and squeeze the handle off, like a balloon. More air is blown directly into the handle to finish the part.
Molds for garbage cans, fuel tanks and drums also use the moving-section technique.
Another big Peters invention, die shaping, touches nearly every segment of the blow molding industry.
"Basically it's opening up a little bit of the orifice that forms the parison in certain areas, to get a thicker parison in that area as it extrudes out of the die head," Peters said.
Complex parts, such as gas tanks, need more plastic in areas that have to stretch further.
Peters was around in 1962, when Phillips began making prototype gas tanks for cars and trucks — decades before they became accepted commercially.
"There was a lot of resistance to a plastic fuel tank for many, many years — particularly from the legal people who said, if we put a plastic fuel tank on, when they get a failure they're going to say it's plastic and we're going to pay through the nose," he said.
Along the way, the former farmhand learned to love Bartlesville. After all, Peters said, it's not that big of a city.
"You don't have to fight traffic every day. It might take me seven minutes to get home. Maybe 10 if I hit the peak traffic."