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Rockford inventor gets second chance

ROCKFORD (AP) – Mel Crooks is getting another chance at making his dream of having an educational geometric toy in every home and classroom come true.

The Rockford designer and inventor is launching his toy, Delta Flex Domes and Spheres – a set of 1-by-8-inch bendable strips pieced together with brass fasteners – to teach about shapes.

He patented the invention in 1979 and 1980 with the intention of selling his product. He put his vision on hold for decades, though, to spend time with his family and focus on his different businesses.

But he said it’s never too late. Even at age 76.

“Domes and spheres are pretty hard to put together. I found a way to simplify it,” Crooks said. “The idea is that it comes with all of the pieces, and you put it together into different shapes.”

An idea born

Crooks had just finished his design degree at the Second American Bauhaus at Southern Illinois University in 1962 when he was drafted into the Army. He quickly learned that the government could put a designer in the military, but the military couldn’t take the designer out of him.

“I just got out of school and being a designer, you’re a free thinker. Being in the military, they do a lot of the thinking for you,” Crooks said.

He started putzing around with wet, wooden coffee sticks to create different triangular shapes. The creative activity helped keep him occupied during his 2 years of service.

Crooks knew his design had potential, but he didn’t have time to promote it, with a wife and child at home. Time slowly slipped away from him. But he agreed to take another stab at getting his toy on shelves when his second wife died 2 years ago.

This time, he’s got the support of friends and family to get the invention in stores later this year.

John Stukel, who’s helping market the toy, said he was a bit apprehensive when he first learned about Crooks’ vision.

But as Crooks started to explain how spheres and domes make up virtually every creative design, he was hooked. Stukel started researching the figures on the Internet, wanting to know more about these shapes.

“It would be a disaster if he had this great idea and didn’t share it with anyone,” Stukel said.

Looking forward

Crooks has created a workshop in his home, using different rooms to cut strips, spray-paint material and assemble kits.

He plans to roll out his toy later this year, complete with an educational booklet to illustrate how to make these shapes.

But, for now, he will focus on educating students about geometric shapes. He recently led Hiawatha School District students in Kirkland through a hands-on activity teaching them about these intricate shapes.

“If I can teach kids, then I can teach anyone,” Crooks said.

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