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Robert Abplanalp, 81; Tycoon, Loyal Friend of Richard Nixon

September 03, 2003|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Robert H. Abplanalp, a member of President Richard M. Nixon's inner circle whose invention of an improved aerosol valve to dispense everything from whipped cream to insecticides made him a multimillionaire, has died. He was 81.

Abplanalp, chairman and chief executive of Precision Valve Corp., died of cancer Saturday at his home in Bronxville, N.Y.

Abplanalp, whose international valve company dominates the worldwide market, had contributed to Nixon's unsuccessful 1960 presidential campaign and, when they first met in 1963, Abplanalp told Nixon that he had been "robbed" in the election.

At the time of their meeting, Nixon was starting a law practice in New York after another political disappointment: his failed 1962 race for California governor. Abplanalp retained Nixon's firm to handle some of his company's overseas legal affairs and they became close friends.

Though he downplayed his contribution to Nixon's White House years -- "My job," he once said, "was to tell a couple of small jokes" -- Abplanalp offered Nixon friendship and financial support.

After Nixon won the 1968 presidential race, Abplanalp loaned him $625,000 to help finance the purchase of the San Clemente property that served as the Western White House.

During Nixon's presidency, Abplanalp refurbished a house on his private 125-acre island in the Bahamas for Nixon's use and made his 55-foot yacht available for the vacationing president.

Abplanalp also purchased a house in Key Biscayne, Fla., next to the home of Nixon friend Charles "Bebe" Rebozo, for use by the Secret Service during presidential visits to Rebozo's home.

At the time of the Watergate burglary in June 1972, Nixon was vacationing at Abplanalp's island in the Bahamas. And when Nixon resigned from the presidency in August 1974, Abplanalp joined Rebozo in flying to California to spend time with Nixon at his home in San Clemente.

Although Abplanalp reportedly did not like talking publicly about his long friendship with Nixon, there was no doubt that he continued to hold him in high regard. When asked in a 1999 interview who his heroes were, he replied, "My father and Richard Nixon." Nixon, he added, "was much maligned."

The son of Swiss immigrants -- his father was the mechanic for a fleet of bakery trucks -- Robert Henry Abplanalp was born on April 4, 1922, in the Bronx, N.Y.

Abplanalp, who had tinkered in his father's basement machine shop while growing up, studied mechanical engineering at Villanova University but dropped out after three years to open his own machine shop in the Bronx.

After serving in the Army in Europe during World War II, he returned to his machine shop, which was then $10,000 in debt.

Abplanalp's fortunes changed dramatically after an aerosol products salesman complained to him that the metal valves then being used on aerosol cans were not only unreliable but corroded easily and were expensive to produce.

Abplanalp went to work designing a plastic valve with a metal mounting cup that could be mass-produced at a lower price per valve: 2 1/2 cents instead of 15 cents.

In 1949, Abplanalp, who patented his valve, founded Precision Valve Corp. with two partners; he bought them out in 1968.

By 1971, Abplanalp's company reportedly was grossing $50 million a year and he had a personal fortune of about $100 million.

During the 1970s, after the federal government declared fluorocarbon propellants an environmental hazard and ordered a phased end to their use in aerosol dispensers, Abplanalp introduced a spray system that used natural gas in liquid form as the propellant and water as the solvent.

Headquartered in Yonkers, N.Y., Precision Valve Corp. has factories and offices in 20 countries and produces 4 billion valves a year.

In 1971, Abplanalp, who held hundreds of patents, received the Horatio Alger Award, which is given annually to outstanding individuals who have achieved success despite difficult childhood circumstances.

"I'm a living example of 'only in America,' " he said in 1999. "I thank God every day for good fortune sitting on my shoulder. There's some dumb luck involved." With a smile he added, "It's about 75% luck."

He is survived by his wife, Josephine; a son, John, the company's president; a daughter, Marie Holcombe, of Bronxville; a sister, Clara Radcliff; and four grandchildren.

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