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.
"There was no kind of plot to keep Bob from talking to the press," Vallese said. "Because of the workload, the sheer volume of stuff being down at the lab, we weren't able to fulfill reporter requests."
Hundemer, who is not used to holding his tongue when it comes to safety matters, said it felt like being under quarantine.
Yesterday, he chose to meet a reporter at a baby superstore near his home in Springfield, where he spoke volubly as he led a tour, poking at bumpers on cribs, scrutinizing baby bath seats and yanking on Cookie Monster to demonstrate how toy animal eyes have been redesigned to make them safe.
"I'm not saying manufacturers are nefarious," he said. "They understand the sales value of a toy; they don't understand risk."
Hundemer came to the CPSC after being let go by a chain saw manufacturing company for complaining to his bosses about a safety defect, he said. Once at the agency, he helped develop safety standards for chain saws that helped reduce deaths from accidental decapitations. He moved on to working on children's products.
Years later, while shopping for his then-newborn son, he pointed out an unsafe crib to a salesman, prompting his mother-in-law to walk out of the store in embarrassment. He later reported the product to the agency.
"I can't have knowledge something is unsafe and not say anything," he said.
What he liked most about working in government was that he could speak his mind.
"When I saw something I didn't like, I could say something," he said. "I could do that without fear of getting my head chopped off."
He also liked being in the business of helping to save lives. He's worked on voluntary standards and regulations that have helped prevent children from getting killed or hurt using baby walkers, cribs and trampolines. He spent his last few weeks at the CPSC investigating the death of an infant in a crib. Almost all the deaths he has investigated over the years stay with him. He can recall in vivid detail autopsy photos he saw 20 years ago.
Preventing deaths and injuries is what kept him and his colleagues going through years of budget cuts.
"We didn't say, 'We don't have any money. We don't give a damn.' We said, 'We don't have any money, how do we do it anyway?' " he said.
Hundemer has not been formally replaced, though his duties have been assumed by others at the lab, Vallese said.
"Bob Hundemer the man is irreplaceable," she said, but the job will be posted and his position filled. The agency plans to use its growing budget to fill other jobs as well.
Hundemer got an inkling of how big Bob was in mid-December when Kitty Pilarz, the director of worldwide product safety for Fisher-Price, came up to him at a toy safety meeting and asked for his autograph.
Pilarz, who has known Hundemer for years, said that during her last trip to a Fisher-Price testing lab, she noticed all the employees were wearing Bob name tags.
"In the testing world, you've become like Madonna," he recalled Pilarz telling him. "You don't need a last name."
Not surprisingly, Hundemer has already been approached by toy companies interested in hiring his "expert eyeballs," as he puts it. He hopes his work in the private sector will help keep dangerous products from reaching consumers.
"You don't spend most of your life trying to make a difference and walk away," he said. "That's not me."