Goodbye to Bob

By Annys Shin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 5, 2008

Bob has dropped his last toy.

Robert L. Hundemer, the man who unwittingly became a symbol of the nation's underfunded product safety system, retired Thursday after more than 25 years of government service.

In the midst of last year's toy recalls, Hundemer, an engineering technician with the Consumer Product Safety Commission, became known as the nation's sole full-time toy tester, referred to in speeches and news accounts only by his first name, "Bob."

Hundemer decided that, at age 61, it was time to move on. He leaves behind an agency less than half the size it was when he started in 1980 and a testing facility in Gaithersburg that once was spacious but now is cramped and run down, infested with rodents and plagued by rotted window frames.

All of that is likely to change, however. This year, the CPSC is expecting its largest funding increase in 30 years -- $80 million for the 2008 fiscal year, which is $17 million more than for fiscal 2007. And Congress is working on future increases, including $20 million to upgrade the testing facilities.

Hundemer's outspokenness deserves some of the credit.

His primary duties at the CPSC included testing toys for small parts that small children might choke on, including dropping the toys from different heights to see if they broke. Last summer, he told a New York Times reporter who came to tour the testing facility that his modest domain was "the toy lab for all of America -- for all of the United States government!"

The agency has other employees, including chemists who test toys for lead, spokeswoman Julie Vallese said. But when the Times story ran in September, Hundemer was identified in a photo caption as "the sole full-time tester for toys on the market in the United States." There he was, one genial, shortish, gray-haired man standing between the children of America and the rising tide of imported toys.

Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) enlarged the photo of Hundemer standing in the closet-sized office that was his lab and brought it to a hearing two weeks later, where he quizzed CPSC acting chairman Nancy Nord about it. "Bob's our small parts guy," Nord said.

Bob the toy tester was born, to the chagrin of agency officials who tried unsuccessfully for weeks afterward to explain that Hundemer was not the CPSC's only toy tester.

"Unfortunately, Bob has become an urban myth," Nord said during an October appearance on the "CBS Early Show."

After the Senate hearing, the CPSC was deluged with requests to visit the lab and to interview him. Agency officials denied them.

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