Remembering Mel Dubin
Mel Dubin dreamed, invented, and built something that helped raise thousands of American families. In this episode, Dan Holohan remembers his friend Mel, the founder of Slant/Fin.
Mel left us in 2015, but I can’t get him out of my head.
Our grandson, Sully, was visiting and he brought along one of those remote-controlled cars. The thing looks like a monster truck, but Sully-size. He set it up in our living room and hit the go button. It zipped across the floor and crashed into Mel's baseboard. The end cap snapped open and Sully gave me that Am-I-in-trouble? look. I walked over and snapped the end cap back into place with the toe of my shoe. Sully watched. I rubbed him on the head and told him it was okay.
"Can I do it again?"
"Yeah, sure. Why not?" I said.
Mel made good things that last a long time. The baseboard in our house was here when we arrived in 1977. The guy before me had abandoned the leaking, copper-in-concrete radiant system from 1950 in favor of Slant-Fin baseboard. Mel had invented that new type of convector when he returned from Los Alamos. Mel's job during World War II was to help develop the atomic bomb. He was a smart fella.
He also cared about people. He ran unsuccessfully for New York City Comptroller in 1965, and then for Congress in 1968, opposing the Vietnam War. He had had enough of war. Senator Chuck Schumer was a Harvard Law student at the time and he knocked on doors for Mel Dubin.
But Mel lost that election, so he went back to making good baseboard convectors.
I first met him in the late-'70s when I worked for the manufacturers' rep and we took on the Slant-Fin boiler line for a time. A group of us sat in a meeting room and Mel asked me about myself during a break. Who I was, what I did. I was astonished that the guy who gave us baseboard wanted to know about me. I mean who the heck was I? I was just this young kid.
But that went on for years. I'd go to visit Mel at the Slant/Fin factory in Greenvale, which is just a short ride from our home. Mel's son, Adam, would greet me and we'd drag Mel away from his desk and go to lunch at a local restaurant. Mel had so many questions for me. How was I doing? What was I up to? How was my family? What did I think about this new product, or that political situation? Did I think such and such was a trend in the industry? Was I concerned about it? What mattered to me in life? He was more interested in what I had to say than he was in telling me what he thought about anything.
That's a rare quality these days. Most people just want to talk about themselves. It was always different with Mel.
"You should get him on tape," I said to Adam one year. "Get him to tell his stories. They're priceless."
"I should," Adam said.
"Don't wait too long," I said. "I waited too long with my father. I never got him on tape. I wish I could hear his voice and his stories just one more time."
Adam didn't wait. He called me and said he was bringing in a film crew to record Mel's memories. That would be better than making audiotapes. And, oh. Would I like to be Mel's interviewer?
Who could say no to that?
I sat with Mel for hours over several days as the crew filmed it all. I asked him about how he got started, about his war years and his philanthropy afterwards. How Slant/Fin came to be, what he cared about, where he saw the world going. I didn't have to do much more than say, "So, Mel, tell me about. . . "And he'd be off and running.
Slant-Fin has those tapes available online if you'd like to watch them. Give them a call and ask about them. Mel's stories are priceless.
Mel started Slant-Fin in Coney Island in 1949, the year before I was born. He moved the company around Brooklyn and Queens as they grew because there was a great need for hydronics in those post-War years.
In 1965, the year I got my first kiss from a girl, Mel moved the company to Greenvale, where they remain. Lots of Americans have raised their families on Mel's dream. He probably could have moved that company offshore but he stuck with the people who helped him build the company. I like that a lot.
I sat Shiva in Mel's house in 2007 after Eleanor, his wife of 46 years passed. I thought about their daughter, Nina, who was just 18 years old when she died in a horrible car crash 22 years earlier. She was their only daughter, Adam’s only sister. I don't think it's possible to get over that.
We sat Shiva for Eleanor and Mel asked me about how I was doing. What I was up to. What I found interesting. His wife just died. He's asking how I'm doing. That's the sort of man he was. A true mensch.
One year, the National Association of Oil Heating Service Managers made Slant-Fin their Manufacturer of the Year. Adam brought Mel to the convention to pick up the plaque and to say a few words. Mel stood at the lectern with a smile you could pour on a waffle, and then in an accent you could schmear on a New York bagel he said, "So? What took you so long?"
It brought down the house.
He had a piece of his original baseboard element in his office and he showed it to me one day. It looked nothing like what the Slant-Fin baseboard looks like today, but the fins were indeed slanted to offer more surface area to the air. It was an elegant solution to a problem builders were facing in the '50s. How can you heat an American home with something that doesn't take up a lot of space or interfere with the placement of the furniture? Convectors were replacing old-school cast-iron radiators because they were less likely to burn the kids, but convectors were more expensive to install than baseboard because they needed either a two-pipe system, or a one-pipe system with diverter tees. Both of those systems bring balancing challenges. Baseboard allowed for a continuous loop and that was easy to do.
For many contractors, baseboard also removed the burden of having to size radiators. I once asked Mel if he had considered that and he just smiled. Most of the contractors I have known use what I've come to call the Long Island Heat Loss calculation. This involves installing baseboard on every linear foot of wall available. I've often kidded contractors that if Mel had invented baseboard with hinges they would also be installing the stuff on the bottoms of the doors. Most of them would laugh and nod yes to that.
There was safety in baseboard, and for better or worse, it took much of the engineering out of the design. It oversized radiation most of the time, but as time went by and controls got smarter, contractors realized that the oversized baseboard operated at lower water temperatures and that saved the homeowner money.
I never asked Mel if he considered that. I'll bet he would have smiled if I had asked him, though.
Mel lived to be 92, which is a good long run, but I miss him dearly. I miss our lunches. I miss his fine, questioning mind. I miss his grace, his humility, and his humanity.
If you never got to meet Mel Dubin you missed one of the better people who ever dreamed and invented and built something good, something that helped raise thousands of American families. He could have moved the whole shebang offshore, but he didn't. He stuck.
And that baseboard in our living room, the one that Sully's small truck crashes into, the one that goes from corner to corner? That baseboard is eight years older than Sully's mother and it's still doing its job. It's tired, sure, but then so am I.
When Sully's a bit older, I'm going to tell him about Mel.
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