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Obituaries

Alonzo G. Decker Jr., 94; Engineer, Power Tool Innovator

March 23, 2002|JACQUES KELLY and FREDERICK N. RASMUSSEN | BALTIMORE SUN

Alonzo G. Decker Jr., the engineer who conceived and led a weekend revolution with do-it-yourself power tools, has died. He was 94.

Decker died Monday of heart failure at his home near Cecilton, Md.

In his seven decades with Black & Decker Corp.--the business co-founded by his father in 1910--he was credited with driving a movement that saw consumers spend their Saturdays doing chores around the house with his drills, saws, hedge trimmers and DustBusters.

His innovations within the industry spawned libraries of magazines and boosted sales at hardware chains. His power drill was used to take core samples of the moon's surface during an Apollo mission.

"He was the outstanding chief executive officer in the company's history," said Charles Costa, Black & Decker vice president for administration. "He took sales from $100 million to $650 million and changed the way people do their work around the house."

Decker, who stepped down as a Black & Decker director a little more than a year ago, was 14 when he began working for the business--founded as Black & Decker Manufacturing Co. by Alonzo G. "Lon" Decker Sr. and S. Duncan Black.

Born in Orangeville, Md., Decker was raised near Towson. He was a graduate of Polytechnic Institute and earned a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering from Cornell University in 1929.

In 1930, he went to work for the company's export department and demonstrated a rotary car polisher in the Soviet Union just as the Depression was beginning to have an effect on business.

Near the end of that year, he was summoned to his father's office and told that he was going to be the first employee laid off. In tough financial times, his father did not want to give the appearance of nepotism.

Decker then worked selling soap flakes to grocery stores for $8 a week, and when he was hired back by the company, it was as a floor sweeper for 25 cents an hour. He worked briefly in the sales department before shifting to manufacturing in 1933.

He was promoted to vice president in 1940, the same year he joined the board, and was the chief executive officer from 1964 to 1975, and chairman of the board until 1978. He resigned from the board Dec. 31, 2000.

In a 1997 interview, Decker recalled that the Blacks were in sales and marketing, while the Deckers were in engineering and invention. "I don't know who planned that," he said, "but it worked."

Decker liked to tell the story that he sensed a trend when World War II defense workers would steal his industrial power drills. They took the drills, then not available at hardware stores, to do home improvements.

After the war, Decker and his engineering department brought out the Home Utility Line--electric drills, drill bit sets, portable circular saws, jig saws and sanders. In 1961, he introduced a cordless, battery-powered drill--the first of a type widely sold today.

Decker was a believer in education and gave much of his personal wealth to Maryland's colleges and universities.

From 1973 to 1976, he chaired the Hopkins 100, Johns Hopkins University's centennial giving campaign that raised $112 million to endow 100 professorships. At the time, it was considered one of the most successful drives of its type in the country.

In his free time, Decker became an amateur botanist and grafted limbs on sickly trees at his 600-acre estate on the Eastern Shore of Chesapeake Bay.

Survivors include his wife of 53 years, the former Virginia Gent.

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