Clutching five dollars and a two-year liberal arts degree, Louis C. "Bud" Rubens hitchhiked his way out of Escanaba, in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. It was 1940. Times were hard. His school, Jordan College, had gone belly up. Back home, men struggled to find work cutting lumber.
Many wandered the countryside during the Great Depression. But Rubens knew exactly what he wanted: a job at Dow Chemical Co.
Sixty years later, Rubens is being inducted into the Plastics Hall of Fame for his pioneering work on blowing agents that led to Dow's Ethafoam and Styrofoam.
Each year, more than 5 billion pounds of foam products are made, based on the basic science developed by Rubens, 80, who is known as the Father of Polymeric Foams.
Rubens almost didn't get in at Dow. He graduated from high school in 1937 and went to Jordan College in Menominee, Mich., a new school that struggled, then closed. He wasn't able to transfer his credits.
"So I decided I better go to work," he recalled. "I had read about Dow in Scientific American. It was about a 350-mile trek to Midland and the only way I could get there was hitchhiking."
At Dow, he filled out an application. Nothing happened. Broke, he decided to try and talk directly to Willard Dow himself.
"I was kind of a brash kid, but I did feel that this is where I wanted to work, and I wasn't going to take no for an answer."
The executive's secretary interceded, but she went back to talk to Mr. Dow. Rubens was directed to the employment office. He soon started working at Dow's legendary Physical Research Laboratory, the "Physics Lab" where scientists were given a good amount of creative freedom.
In charge of the lab was John J. Grebe — who himself had been hired by Herbert H. Dow, who founded Dow in 1897. Grebe had hired Raymond Boyer a few years before. Rubens and another man started work the same day as hourly lab workers.
"They flipped a coin and Boyer lost, and he got me," Rubens said.
Boyer really won. The other guy didn't stay long.
Rubens and Boyer, a 1991 Plastics Hall of Fame member, formed a lifelong friendship. Together, they developed the world's first injection moldable, high-impact polystyrene.
Rubens went on to rack up 58 patents, 35 of them in foam or HIPS.
Rubens worked at Dow from 1940 until he retired in 1986. He reached the highest level on Dow's technical ladder, a Dow research fellow. He was the first person to win the H.H. Dow Gold Medal, in 1979. The German Plastic Foam Industry gave him its Fachverband Schaunstoffe Gold Medal in 1984.
Rubens calls Dow his Camelot. If he wanted to attend a conference in Europe, he went, no questions asked. At the Physics Lab, chemists, physicists and mathematicians came together for fundamental research. Rubens soaked it up.
"We were pretty much left alone to our own devices," he remembered.
Rubens began to study foam in the mid-1940s, especially polyurethane foam. He studied work done by Bayer AG in Germany.
Rubens didn't stop inventing after he retired. He custom-made chairs from Ethafoam for a child with cerebral palsy. He created a way to contain oil spills with plastic film.
Rubens' most recent patent, a lung exercise device, came straight from the heart. His wife, Jane, had struggled for years with an obstructive airway problem in her lungs. Her breathing was weak. He studied similarities between the human lung and the properties of cell foams.
Patients breathe into his Nu-Life tube.
"The doctor figured that she probably got four years of extra life out of it," he said.Jane Ruben died in 1997. Michigan doctors still use the Nu-Life.
Ruben lives alone in Midland, in the house he built. He works in his basement lab, and Dow people still call him for advice.