Wendell Hildenstein BSGE 1952

Mike Helenthal
12/1/2016 3:30:22 PM

Hildenstein's certificate of participation in the Operation Castle atomic test.
Hildenstein's certificate of participation in the Operation Castle atomic test.

Figuring out what made Wendell “Gabe” Hildenstein “tick” was never an easy thing.

A 1952 Illinois General Engineering graduate, he was a child of the Great Depression and an Army veteran who participated in two of the Bikini Atoll hydrogen bomb tests. 

Wendell at Hickam Air Force Base circa 1954.
Wendell at Hickam Air Force Base circa 1954.

He was an engineer, a successful entrepreneur and an inventor-on-the-fly who vaulted a tiny tablecloth company in southern Illinois into the big-time.

The doting father of seven daughters, he embodied all of these roles, sometimes at once, until he died in 2015 at the age of 85.

“It is a good story about the American Way,” said Cathy Hastings, Hildenstein’s oldest daughter, “a story of working and planning and selling, and giving customers what they want.”

At once forward-thinking and reflective, giving and demanding, what really made Hildenstein stand out was that he never let anything — especially an opportunity — go to waste.

“I’m not sure what kind of engineering Gabe was educated in, but I cannot imagine there was a better engineer, ever,” said Terry Anderson, Hildenstein’s nephew, referring to the broad scope of the General Engineering degree (now called Systems Engineering and Design). Anderson worked alongside Hildenstein at the family business, Art Textile Company (Artex), in Highland, Illinois, starting in 1972.

Anderson’s father, Kenneth, was managing the plant when Hildenstein was brought on board, and the younger Anderson would later help run the company with his two brothers. In fact, most of the family members worked at the plant at some time or another in their lives.

“Ken Anderson was a master in seeing the big picture and getting all of the forces together to work as a successful business,” said Hastings.

Hildenstein seized his first opportunity upon graduating from the University of Illinois.

He had offers to work for some of the bigger corporations, like General Electric and General Motors, but chose to go to work for Artex because of its family connection.

“I interviewed several large companies for jobs and had several offers...for more than what I started with the family business,” he wrote in his memoir. “It sure was a wise and fortunate decision. It wasn’t easy to make at the time, though.”

Artex, started by his wife Barbara’s father, who died in 1947, made printed silk screen tablecloths and napkins for restaurants and headrest covers for passenger train and airline companies. 

When Hildenstein started in 1955, the company had secured enough of the market to support 18 employees. When he left in 1983 as vice president, Artex had four plants and had ballooned to 450 employees.

Hildenstein at Artex in the 1960s.
Hildenstein at Artex in the 1960s.

Hildenstein first signed on as an engineer, but soon was promoted to vice president of manufacturing after being a quick study of the entire factory process, which included a dive into the chemistry of vat dyestuffs.

To get up to speed, he toured several textile mills in the south and read every book on dyeing and printing that he could find.

“It was so overwhelming that it took about three more visits to these mills before I ever caught onto what they were doing from one operation to another,” he wrote. “It was a very worthwhile trip because of what I learned.”

The industry’s demand for Artex products was growing, as was its appetite for new and changing colors and designs. Meeting that demand was putting new pressures on the Highland factory that no one could have foreseen — or knew how to address.

But Hildenstein did, and he started rolling out one solution after the next, sometimes even before the problem even popped up.

“One question was how to dye small lots of different colors to prevent the need for huge inventories of colored cloth,” said Terry Anderson. “He developed a vat dye process that could be done in the same wash wheels that the printed cloth was washed in.”

The process not only solved the inventory problem, it led to an explosion of colorful possibilities that made it easier and easier for the elder Anderson to sell on the road.  “Thus, the Artex 10,001 colors took off.”

It also allowed the company to delve into other market niches like slipper socks for the passenger airline industry.  First class passengers could remove their footwear and put on the more comfortable slipper socks.

By the mid-1960s, Hildenstein, engineering hat still squarely on his head, began scouting national sites that could handle the company’s plans to expand into a second plant. 

He started from scratch on a suitable site he found in West Point, Mississippi.

“He designed the building and was the general contractor for construction,” Anderson said. “He set the specifications for the equipment that would be needed and found the equipment in closed textile plants, auctions and fields of old equipment.”

That included the HVAC system and specifying the electrical needs of the plant.

“Gabe’s ability to understand the equipment and be able to direct the in-house maintenance people in its repair allowed a small company to be able to take the next step in growth,” explained Anderson.

“The company expanded with a limited line of standard colors that would be of lower cost and could be dyed in normal dyeing processes using jig dyeing and tenter-frame drying.”

Once the new factory was built, Hildenstein also designed and ran the training programs. He managed major expansions in 1968, 1970 and 1972, the latter which included the addition of continuous thermasol dye range and more tenter frames. The standard color line of products could be dyed less expensively and now the company could process cotton and polyester blends. 

“A new dye thermasol-dye range alone would cost about $5 million,” Anderson said, “but Gabe turn-keyed the project. Including the building and the equipment, and the inspection equipment, it only cost about $1.2 million.”

About the same time, in 1978, the plant in Highland was starting to tax its hometown’s infrastructure.

Hildenstein worked with city officials and developed a way to pretreat water coming from Artex, a feat he matched again in 1980 when Artex moved into bleaching and mercerizing.  

“Gabe again designed the building and specified what equipment was needed, which he found in Tennessee, Georgia, South Carolina and Louisiana,” Anderson said. “He was the general contractor and oversaw the building and equipment installation.”

Anderson said he was always amazed at the detailed and wide range of industrial knowledge, which Hildenstein proudly credited to his Illinois General Engineering degree.

“He understood boilers and the hot water needs of our operations, and could translate that into boiler sizes and backups,” he said. “He could translate the water demand into pipe sizes and determine if booster pumps would be needed. He understood the electrical needs of the plant and equipment, and could specify the breaker boxes and circuits that were needed. He understood generators, he understood that heat needed to be removed from the buildings for worker comfort and performance.”

Anderson said the biggest testament to Hildenstein’s genius was that he showed all of this inventive ability within the confines of running a commercially competitive factory within a highly competitive industry.

“What he designed and built, he wound up running and made money with,” he said. “Not many engineers are lucky enough to learn what works and what doesn’t by having to profitably run the plant or equipment after it’s built. It’s why Gabe kept making plants run better and better.”

Wendell at the University of Illinois in 1948.
Wendell at the University of Illinois in 1948.

The early years

Hildenstein started his academic career at the Galesburg campus in 1948. The campus was part of a U. of I. expansion plan designed to meet the increased demand of the G.I. Bill, which promised a college education for returning soldiers.

Born and raised in nearby Edwardsville, he had never really liked school, though he seemed to have felt he had gotten his act together when he hit high school.

“I was taking the science and math courses for college prep, but I knew that my parents couldn’t afford to send me to college,” he wrote in his memoir. “Something would have to work out, that I did not yet know.”

In his first year after high school, Hildenstein worked two jobs in St. Louis over the summer for a combined $1.65 an hour. The $750 he was able to save was spent on his first year of classes at Galesburg.

“I thought it was easy,” Hildenstein wrote of his first-year college performance. “The first year I made the Honors Day Celebration with a B-average. That year of working (the two jobs) convinced me to stay in college no matter what it took.”

The Galesburg campus closed following Hildenstein’s first year, but he kept working and saving, and made the move to the Urbana campus. His carpool driver fortuitously was Barbara Anderson’s mother.

“Of course, I didn’t know Barb was to become my future bride then,” he wrote. “We were very good friends from our senior year in high school.”

They decided to marry upon his graduation, but that plan also developed a twist after Hildenstein got called up in the Korean War draft.

Wendell and Barbara off to honeymoon in St. Louis, 13 September 1952.
Wendell and Barbara off to honeymoon in St. Louis, 13 September 1952.

They tied the knot before Gabe was called up in 1954, though Cathy was born while Gabe was stationed at Eniwetok Island, part of the Marshall Islands and the staging area for a series of U.S. hydrogen bomb tests known as Operation Castle.

Hildenstein served as a clerk in his unit for a year, and was eyewitness to two of the tests, both of which he described in detail.

The first test he saw was from Eniwetok, 200 miles away from the blast site. He saw the second blast onboard a ship just 40 miles away, where he was tasked with marking down Geiger counter readings.

Operation Castle hydrogen bomb test at Bikini Atoll.
Operation Castle hydrogen bomb test at Bikini Atoll.


“The sight of these bombs is almost unbelievable,” he wrote. “The light they give off after detonation is as bright as the noonday sun. It lasts for almost a minute, as the enormous mushroom stem rises to heights of 50- to 70,000 feet into the sky – with every color of the rainbow in motion.”

Seeing that sight, Hildenstein seemed to also have had an ever great appreciation of family life, as much of his memoir focuses on family trips – including a world cruise he and Barbara took in 1996.

Telegram Wendell received at Eniwetok announcing the birth of his daughter.
Telegram Wendell received at Eniwetok announcing the birth of his daughter.

“These seven beautiful persons and their gracious and adorable mother are the crowing achievements of my entire life,” he wrote of his family. “No man has been so blessed as I have.”

Wendell always proudly wore his Illinois jacket, watch, and class ring.
Wendell always proudly wore his Illinois jacket, watch, and class ring.

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