Bust from former students honors retired professor

CHAMPAIGN – Jeffrey Breslow, a partner in Chicago-based Big Monster Toys, says he's indebted to Ed Zagorski for opening up an unexpected career for him.

"Without Ed, I can't imagine what I'd be doing, but I certainly wouldn't be designing toys," said Breslow, whose companies have licensed ideas to Hasbro, Mattel and Fisher-Price. "He basically changed my life."

Dozens of Zagorski's other former students several of whom became acclaimed industrial designers feel much the same way. Many of them will be back on campus Monday to present the former professor of industrial design with a bronze bust of himself.

The bust, created by Chicago sculptor Susan Clinard, will be presented at the Fine Arts Building, 408 E. Peabody Drive, C, where it will remain on display.

Zagorski, who taught at the UI from 1956 to 1988, hasn't seen the bronze, but at a spring reunion of former students, he got to see the wax molding.

"I was looking at myself in three dimensions. I had never seen how I look to other people," said Zagorski, 85, of Cerro Gordo.

"People said, 'Don't you look in the mirror?' I said, 'Yes, but you're not seeing yourself as others see you. When I look in the mirror, I'm looking at myself in reverse. I see myself differently three-dimensional than when I look in the mirror."

That's an appropriate observation for someone experienced at looking at things with a different eye.

When studying a product, industrial designers must first consider its function, then consider its cost. Only after that should they consider the appearance of the product not the appearance they like best, but the one the public will like best, Zagorski said.

One of Zagorski's former students, Bill Stumpf, went on to design the Aeron and Ergon office chairs. Another, Craig Vetter, designed the Windjammer motorcycle fairing, which changed the design of the modern-day motorcycle.

"Ed Zagorski taught me that even though you have to grow up, you don't have to lose your childlike qualities," said Vetter, 64, of Carmel, Calif., who returned to Champaign-Urbana for the bust presentation. "If I had not had him, I might have gotten old."

"His inspiration comes from the fact he's full of wonder, full of what-if, full of enthusiasm, full of life," Vetter said.

Breslow called Zagorski "one of the true inspirational teachers" he had.

Breslow confessed he was a "screw-up" in high school and on "terminal probation" at Bradley University. But one weekend he visited friends at the UI and came across an industrial design display.

Students had been challenged to take a 2-by-2-by-10-inch piece of wood, make only three cuts in it, reassemble the pieces and decorate them with automotive paint. The results were "beautiful," Breslow said.

Breslow noticed Zagorski was responsible for the display, then saw his name on a half-open office door.

"I introduced myself, asked about the project, and in 20 minutes, he changed my life," he said. "I went from somebody who had little success in my educational career to someone who is doing extremely well."

In a telephone interview last week, Zagorski was asked the secret of his enthusiasm.

"I wish I could say it was Ovaltine, but I think it simply expresses a passion for teaching," he said. "I really did get involved in teaching on a 24-hour basis."

Optimism is one of the keys, he said.

"Even if your own life isn't that smooth, don't carry your burden into the classroom," he said. "Humor's another thing. Every time I turned around, there was always something humorous in life. There are certain things you can't make fun of anymore, which I think is sad. If you do, you'll be labeled cynical or tasteless. But if I can get a laugh out of somebody, I usually push it."

For years, Zagorski made three-dimensional models of airplane crashes for use in court cases. The models helped juries visualize the situations so they could determine who was at fault. Zagorski figures he built about 50 models used as "demonstrative evidence" in court.

These days, Zagorski finds other outlets for creativity. He collects hand tools "preferably good-looking hand tools," he said. He recently lectured to high school students in Taylorville. And he's working on a book about some of his projects.

He's thinking of calling the book "Get Ten Eagles," based on a letter published in Scientific American magazine in 1885.

At the time, ideas were being solicited for ways to achieve flight, and one contributor suggested getting 10 eagles, putting jackets on them and attaching the jackets to a basket large enough to contain a man.

"The reason they printed it was not as a joke, but to encourage brainstorming, to try to solve a problem," Zagorski said. "As ridiculous as it was, I thought it was inspirational. Every time a student (confronted with a problem) came up and said, "I can't think of anything,' I'd ask, "Have you tried 10 eagles?'"

Zagorski said he's still wrestling with the concept of a bust of himself.

"I'm feeling a little uncomfortable that I'm still here," he said. "They're going to give me a bust a bronze casting that took considerable money and time. I always associate a bust with someone who has passed on. What are they telling me here?

"I'm almost inclined to tell them that in return for this honor, I promise I will go to all of their funerals," he said.

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