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Excerpt From 'The Last Leaf: Voices of History’s Last-Known Survivors'

Robert Halgrim—The last man alive to work with Thomas Edison

In 1999 Life magazine ranked the most influential people of the previous millennium. History’s greatest inventor, Thomas Alva Edison, was rated first, besting luminaries like Christopher Columbus, Albert Einstein, George Washington and Johannes Gutenberg. Edison patented more than 1000 items, such as the phonograph and the lightbulb, and it is easy to take for granted how much he helped create modern life. Seventy years after the inventor’s death in 1931, Robert Halgrim of Fort Myers, Fla., is Edison’s last surviving employee.

Robert Halgrim was born in Humboldt, Iowa, on September 9, 1905. Geographic luck played a role in his meeting Edison, who wintered in Fort Myers. “Around 1920 my father, Colonel Halgrim, ran a silent movie theater in Fort Myers. Whenever a new movie was showing, Mr. Edison wanted to be notified. He would set a date and bring in guests for a private viewing. I was the one who showed the guests to their seats. …

“Mr. Edison brought his grandchildren to Fort Myers for the 1924 Christmas vacation. He had asked the local Boy Scout leader who would be a good teacher and nanny for them. I was 19 and in the Scout troop, so I was recommended and hired. I took care of the children, and many times I went up to New Jersey to care for them there. I really felt I was a personal friend of the family, and Mrs. Edison told me she wanted me to be a part of the family. Once they took me to Edison’s box at Carnegie Hall and I watched a play with him. He also gave me a party on Broadway.”

Edison also furthered Halgrim’s formal education. “After I tutored the grandchildren, the Edisons decided that I should go to college. He paid for me to attend Cornell. In exchange, I would stay with them and look after the grandchildren. I went to Cornell for three years, but he took me out of school. He decided that if I hadn’t learned all that I could in three years, he’d teach me whatever else I needed to know. … I went to work as his personal assistant and did that until his death. …

“Mr. Edison was terrific to work for. He had a great sense of humor. If he saw someone was having trouble at work or getting irritated with a problem, Mr. Edison would go over to him, involve him in a joke, thus relaxing him, and then the worker could turn around and do what he had to do. But he also taught me a great life lesson. Once he caught me standing around just a few minutes before work was over for the day. He approached and asked me what I was doing. I replied that I had done everything for the day. So Mr. Edison told me to go and get a large glass cube and a hacksaw. Mr. Edison told me to cut the glass into one-inch cubes. I was irritated, since there were electric-powered saws in the lab and he wanted me to use an old saw. It took me roughly two and a half hours to do it. I thought the task was stupid. Finally I told Mr. Edison that I was done. He asked me if I did the best I could do, and I said yes. He replied, ‘That’s all I ever ask of you. I wanted to see if you would do what I asked you to do, and you did it well, even though you were upset with me.’ ” Halgrim stops, then proclaims, “I’ve based a lot of my life on that lesson.” …

“The thing that is so sad is that he kept all his knowledge to himself, so no one could carry on his thoughts and produce any of the things he made. Did you know you can’t buy a single Edison product today? When he died, it all went with him. It’s a shame, but I cannot imagine anyone who has done more for the world as we see it today.”

Editor’s note: Robert Halgrim died at age 99 on May 2, 2005.

From The Last Leaf: Voices of History’s Last-Known Survivors (Prometheus Books, 2010). Reprinted by permission of the publisher. Read an interview with Stuart Lutz.