For millennia man has maimed the orange while trying to remove its skin. Well, Wilbur Blank has put a stop to that.
by Jim Calio
Photographs by Mary Ellen Mark Director of Photography: David Hume Kennedy
For more than 40 years, Wilbur Blank has had a dream. He has dreamed that someday his invention, an orange peeler, would find a market and make him rich. "I don't need a lot of money," he says. "Just enough. Maybe $90,000. I could live very well on $90,000. I don't want to be a millionaire. You have too many people on your back."
And Wilbur Blank, 70, may be getting closer to realizing his dream. Last year, he got a big push from Andy Rooney, the curmudgeonly commentator for CBS‑TV's 60 Minutes. Rooney, who gets dozens of useless gizmos in the mail every week, held up Wilbur's device ‑named the Qwik Orange Peeler‑ and told a nationwide audience: "This is great. It's changed my life."
The reaction was instantaneous. The tiny post office in Toulon, Illinois (population: 1,397), where Wilbur lives, was flooded with phone calls and letters. "It was very exciting," says Postmaster Eleanor Addis. Some people just wrote to "Orange Peel Man." (Wilbur's real address is: WIL‑LE Products, Toulon, IL 61483.) But Mrs. Addis knew where to send them. "We just bundled them up and sent them off to Wilbur," she says proudly.
What's all the fuss about? Well, Wilbur Blank's orange peeler is a knife‑shaped 6.5‑inch implement made of nylon. Used properly, it can slice open and peel the skin off an orange in just seconds. It isn't the only orange peeler on the market, but some think it's the best. "We have a peel‑off every year down here," says Florida Department of Citrus spokesman Peter Barr. "Wilbur comes down for it. And he wins every time. His is the best. Some local guy called up and said that his was better, but it wasn't. Wilbur's is. The old man is unique. He puts those guys from Bartle & Jaymes to shame. We've kind of fallen in love with him."
Wilbur knows there’s only one way to skin an orange.
Wilbur got the idea for the orange peeler when he moved from Toulon to Los Angeles to work in an aircraft factory during World War II. His first orange peeler was a crude model made from 1/8‑inch stainless steel wire. He gave several away to family and friends, but he never really thought about making them commercially. For one thing, he couldn't get a patent and, without one, marketing the product would be difficult. For another, after the war, Wilbur met Jane at a local dance and they got married. Wilbur went into business with his brother Earl, and there was little time for gadgets when the first of seven children arrived.
But when he was nearing retirement in 1980, Wilbur decided to try again. He and Jane persuaded a local manufacturer to make 30,000 new and improved orange peelers, and they started selling them in gift shops.
Then one night Andy Rooney appeared on the air talking about how he loved to eat oranges. Wilbur sent him one of his orange peelers, but nothing happened. And nothing continued to happen for three years. Then, as Rooney tells it, he was rummaging around in his desk one day and came across Wilbur Blank's peeler. He tried it and ‑presto‑ lightning struck.
Orders came pouring in. People sent money and a few even sent blank checks. "They trust us, so we've got to trust them," says Wilbur. (The current price for the Qwik Peeler is three for five dollars, postage included.)
The response was so great that Rooney packed up his crew and headed to Toulon a few weeks later to do a follow‑up story. "He didn't even stop to have lunch," says Wilbur. "He said he never eats while working."
Things got better still. Letters arrived from all over the world; several distributors inquired about starting a joint venture; and a toy company wanted to form a partnership. But Wilbur is determined to have it his way, even if it means going it alone. "If I can keep the scalpers out for a year, I can control the market," he says, sounding more like a business school graduate than an ex‑blacksmith who habitually greets visitors in a T‑shirt, baggy pants, and bare feet.
Fun with Wilbur and Jane.
Wilbur and Jane Blank live in an old farmhouse they bought 27 years ago. They run their business out of the dining room. Boxes of correspondence and orders spill onto every available surface. Stray packets of peelers litter the floor and, out back in the garage, bundles of Qwik Peelers await shipment. Wilbur owns a nearby trailer park, and he pays some of its residents 2.5 cents per peeler to staple them to a cardboard backing. About the only concession he has made to modern marketing is to allow friends to make up mailing labels by computer.
The crush of orders that followed the stories by Andy Rooney has subsided, but Wilbur is still optimistic. There is talk that the Florida Department of Citrus may order "tens of thousands" of his Qwik Peelers. And Wilbur always has an eye out for new markets. "There are three million new brides in this country every year," he says. "If I could sell to half of them, I could make a fair profit."
Wilbur Blank is not an overnight sensation. He has held onto his dream for almost five decades, so he knows what the word patience means. Besides, there is always the chance that lightning will strike twice. "Just maybe," he says with a twinkle in his eye, "I'll get myself on another television show."