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RACINE — What would people learn about you if they could go through your notes? Not just notebooks, but half-baked ideas sketched on scrap paper?

Arthur B. Modine, engineer, innovator and founder of Modine Manufacturing, left behind piles of notes on envelopes that he’d cut open to reuse as scrap paper. The Racine Heritage Museum has a small collection of Modine’s notes stowed away among about 200,000 artifacts that it doesn’t have room to display.

Much has been written about Modine over the years — as a businessman, an innovator and an esteemed member of Racine society. But is there more we can glean from a few scraps of paper?

Always innovating

When he started the company in 1916, Modine’s innovation was designing a system where the water in radiators was cooled by the air passing through, which in turn kept gas-powered engines from overheating, according to a 100-year anniversary history of the company posted on the company website around 2016.

The company grew from tractor radiators that could be replaced in the field to heating units to supplying radiators for the Ford Model T. The young company pulled through the Depression in part because in 1932 it became the sole supplier of radiators for Ford trucks.

The sketches owned by the Heritage Museum are from decades later — they are postmarked September 1977. According to Modine’s Intellectual Property Department, that was shortly after the issuance of Modine’s last patent, US 4,019,573, which was submitted in 1975 and issued on April 26, 1977.

In his lifetime, A.B. Modine was issued 125 patents, 121 of them for Modine Manufacturing.

That last patent was for replacement tubes for steam condensers in power plants. Although he received the patent, it seems he wasn’t quite satisfied.

Modine’s IP Department said in his sketches on that envelope it seemed Modine was trying to enhance the patent’s design. His calculations compare a corrugated heat transfer surface with a finned surface to see which would be more effective, even though the surface of the patented part was smooth.

Jeroen Valensa, Modine’s director of global intellectual property, said the sketches show Modine working out further enhancements for the part.

“One thing that’s clear is that he’s very analytical in the work he was doing,” said Valensa. “Going through the calculations, trying to improve, trying to innovate.”

Valensa said that mentality is still a core part of Modine’s company culture, embodied in the tagline, “always innovating, always improving.”

“Even though Modine was the founder of the company, he was at heart an engineer,” said Valensa.

The patent is no longer in use at Modine because it was part of its industrial heat recovery business, which was sold off in 1979.

Legendary frugality

One of Modine’s grandchildren, John Hand, said Modine’s use of scrap paper shows one of the things he remembers most clearly about his grandfather.

“The envelope thing is an indicator of one of his chief attributes, which was frugality,” said Hand. “He didn’t like to waste fresh paper.”

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Hand’s mother, Margaret, was Modine’s middle child, preceded by her brother Tom and succeeded by her sister Julie. Hand grew up in Tucson, but remembers coming to Racine and visiting his grandparents’ house at 11th and Main Streets, where Hand experienced first-hand his grandfather’s “legendary frugality.”

“It would always be the same lunch — chicken noodle soup and a single saltine cracker and a glass of Coca-Cola, watered down,” Hand recalled. “Always given a napkin that was torn in half because nobody needed a full napkin.”

Hand said he didn’t really know where his grandfather’s famous frugality came from. Maybe the experience of trying to keep a young company afloat during the Great Depression left an impression on Modine.

“It’s a hard time giving up those feelings of never having enough and having to save everything you can,” said Hand.

Many faces of Modine

Of course, there’s more to a man than his scraps of paper.

Hand said Modine, like many men of his generation, wasn’t exactly nurturing, though he assumed a teaching role with the younger generation.

“He was a kind of a stern guy. He was kind of always trying to teach the grandchildren a lesson of some kind,” said Hand. “I remember sitting around the dining room table while we were eating at (the family summer house on Lake Owen) and he was always quizzing us about something he thought we ought to know, and if we didn’t, we’d get a scowl. He wasn’t a jolly kind of person.”

Hand said Modine’s grandchildren, and maybe also his children, were a little intimidated by him. By the time Hand’s mother was born, Modine had started his company and was “wrapped up in” looking after the business.

“He was sort of an authority figure,” said Hand. “I don’t think he was that attentive of a father.”

The family gave some of Hand’s grandfather’s notes to Modine Manufacturing, some of which are on display. But there are still trunks of notes, photographs and correspondence stowed in the family summer home on Lake Owen in Bayfield County, some of which show another side of A.B. Modine.

“We have a lot of photographs in the archive of him in social situations,” said Hand. “He got along very well socially with his contemporaries.”

Some of the photos predate television and radio and show groups of friends playing music together. Among the crowd is Modine, playing the mandolin.

“He was pretty good at it,” said Hand.

There’s even a notebook from when he took a course in physics at University of Wisconsin after retiring in 1972. Hand explained Modine grew interested in the space program in the 1960s, so when he no longer needed to run his business, he took the course so he could better understand the dynamics of space.

“One of the things he did was he calculated how the trajectory of a spacecraft to take a satellite to the moon,” said Hand. “I think he took that course try to enhance his ability to understand those concepts.”

Modine died in 1981 but the company he founded has gone global, developing heat transfer systems for a variety of industries.

A.B. Modine was a man of many faces: a stern authority figure; a socializer and mandolin player; a businessman able to survive the worst economic disaster of the 20th Century; and an engineer, constantly recalculating, revising and wanting to learn more.

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Reporter

Christina Lieffring covers the City of Racine and the City of Burlington and is a not-bad photographer. In her spare time she tries to keep her plants and guinea pigs alive and happy.

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