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STEM Squared Summit Guest Innovator: Corky Newcomb

Posted by Francis Vigeant on Mar 18, 2016


"Risk and fear is key. You got to make sure these kids understand it's okay to take a risk, and the only fear, the only thing that you have to fear is basically, failure, and that's not an option. You got to just tell them, “look, we need innovation. We need you." -Corky Newcomb

Self-described "Inventor Mentor" Corky Newcomb spoke at the STEM² Summit about the need for great ideas from young students and how teachers can allow those ideas to come to fruition.

In this transcript of his talk at the Summit, you'll read about:

  • Newcomb's own family heritage and how it shaped him into the inventor he is today
  • His dream for an American "Revovention"
  • How to encourage students to pursue their dreams


Corky Newcomb: Hopefully, in the next 30 minutes, I can teach you what I've learned in 40 years. That's a pretty difficult job, but I will do my best. You probably have heard of TED Talks. I don't know how to give one of those, but I do know how to talk about Ted. You may be wondering why you showed up in a hitting seminar when you are educators. Well, there is a a lot to be learned from certain keys in hitting. If you write these down when you go to your tryout at Fenway Park, these will come in handy, I guarantee you.

Ted always said, to get a good ball, to hit choke up with two strikes, don't pull a curve ball, and what he means by that is, “what is a pitcher going to throw?” It's kind of like intuition. What's life going to throw at you? Down the pike, there are a lot of curve balls. I'm sure you have seen a lot of curve balls in your life, and I'm sure you're seeing curve balls in your students’ lives.


Anyway, what does that have to do with the price of eggs? Let me try to explain. I had a lot of good teachers along the way, it's the only reason that I'm standing here today. This is my mother Jane, who was the director of reading in the seven towns in our area. I come from the backwoods of New Hampshire, up near Wolfeboro, you may know Lake Winnipesaukee. Anyway, she got my brothers and myself reading probably around three days after we left the hospital. If she were here today she would tell you, writing, science, technology are very important, if you can't read the book where you going. That's the net bottom-line.

Anyway, the next teacher was my sixth grade teacher who I really, really was very fond of. A German lady, Dolly Schneider, as you can tell. [...] She was always saying, “that's great, Corky, but I know you can make it better.” That was her philosophy. She used to run a vocabulary test every week and give out one prize -- not the whole school, not the whole class -- one prize. She taught me how to develop a great memory. I'll never forget her. She just passed away a couple years ago, at about 96 years old. She went full speed.

Here's a great woman, I loved her a lot, Lynnda Buell, she probably could've made $100 million on Broadway but she decided to be a teacher at Kingswood Regional High School. Linda, they called her the drama queen because people would come from Boston to watch her Broadway musicals, just absolutely astounding. If you might be in the backwoods of Massachusetts somewhere and you would say, “there's no way I can compete with Broadway" I guarantee you there is, and Linda was the proof. [...]

Ernie Bainton, he taught me how to write, and obviously your kids need to know how to write if they're going to write papers on technology. Ernie had a little book, and the book had pictures in it, no words. Every night, what you had to do was go home and write an essay on what that picture meant to you. You write 180 essays, I guarantee you, you’re going to learn how to be a good writer. Great exercise, I don't know if they still make this book, I'm sure you can make your own book. 

Here's my great-great-grandfather, he fought in the Civil War. On June 22, 1862, he got shot twice. It was at the battle of Gaines Mills. He taught me perseverance. The obituary said that he was 22 years old at the time, and it said they sent him home to die, and he did when he was 89 years old. Just shows you, and I don't mean any play on words here, but you can take two bullets and still survive. Long life. What's interesting about this is, it was 112 years after my great-great-grandfather was firing bullets at the Southerners, and the Southerners were firing bullets at my great-great-grandfather -- I was selling the same bullets to Neiman Marcus in the Christmas catalog in 1974. The point is, your kids might have an idea that came back, or came from their ancestors, that they can develop into a product. Now Francis and Scott right here, they wanted me to take a commercial, and I'll try to do this fast, because, 30 minutes, that's it.

My dad was very big on teaching his sons to be entrepreneurs. What he said was, “boys, you are going to have to get out and make a living.” My brother was 14, I was 15. He said, “we are going to get you boys into the donut business.” We said, “why would we would we being doing that, Dad?” He said, “because you're going to learn a lot.” He and my mom were running a resort at Winnipesaukee and one of their cooks would make these donuts, so my brother and I, we would load the boat up, and the deal was, don't come back until all those donuts were sold.

We drew straws. My brother drew the driving straw, he liked to go fast, and I had to sell the donuts. We would go out there, and one morning we found two old guys, and I said, “Dick, see those boys? Get me over there.” I walked in, and the guy would say, “what’s your name, kid?” and I told him, and he said what are you doing and I said well we have the world's greatest donuts. He said, “what makes you think that?” I said, “well, if you take one bite, you'll know.” He takes one bite and says, “these are the greatest donuts.”

He said, “my name is Jay Willard Marriott, and this is my good friend Governor George Romney. He's running for president. What do you think the odds are you and your brother would come back over here every morning at seven when those donuts are nice and warm?” I said, “Mr. Marriott, we will be here at seven every morning.” He was our first customer, our best customer, and he let us go around saying that we had the world's greatest donuts, and that helped our sales. That's a great lesson right there, you get those kids out there early, I guarantee you they’re going to get some base hits.

Here's my great-great-grandfather again, holding my uncle. What's amazing here is, that's a soldier holding a soldier. He didn't know he was a soldier yet, he is going to be one. Fast-forward 20 years, and here he is shooting his way across France and Germany. My Uncle Bud, his favorite line was “the day you stop fighting is the day you start dying.” He had the funniest sense of the humor; he would crack me up, and I think that's the reason why he survived. In the tough times, I think it's essential that you have to have a great sense of humor.

I will address that a little bit later here. Here's my dad in the Navy in 1944. As Scott mentioned, he signed with the old St. Louis Browns, now to Baltimore Orioles. His line was, “keep in shape, don't let the grass grow under your feet.” What he meant by that was, life is short, you don't know if you are going to get two innings or nine, so you better go full speed. The only reason that I didn't end up in Vietnam like that blond boy right in the middle there is because I had great teachers. Just like yourselves.

Now a lot of you are too young to understand this, but back in the ’60s if you didn't get a 2S deferment, or you weren't married, or you didn't have a medical problem, you were going to go to Vietnam. Now I'm not saying I wouldn't want to fight, but I just feel lucky that I was able to get into college. I passed enough tests, and that was the only difference between standing here today and being on the wall in Washington DC with the other 58,000 names. That's the net bottom line on that. I owe everything to the teachers that I had, and I hope I'm wrong, but down the road, you may actually save some kid's lives.

There's my grandfather, here we go again, another war, Lieutenant, US Army, World War I. He taught me how to fish, and also, the key element in my opinion about anything that you’re ever going to teach is patience. It applies to everything in life. My idea was, get your kids hooked on Shakespeare. What does that mean? Well, Roxanne Coleman, she is the marketing manager for Pure Fishing. She owns a company in Pure Fishing Shakespeare Rods and Reels. My idea is, you get those cell phones unhooked, no texts, no emails, no Facebook. You take the kids to the pond, the river, the lake or the ocean. If you don't have one near, you find somebody who's not using the swimming pool, get Massachusetts Fishing and Game to stock that full and teach those kids how to fish. Because while the fish aren't biting, guess what they might be thinking. Whoa. That would be pretty amazing.

Here's a guy that liked to fish, his name is Ernie, he wrote some books. Now, you may have an Ernie, but he or she in your classroom right now doesn't know it. That's what you need to do, is cultivate that seed. I do a lot of speaking in schools, I was up there New Hampshire and a kid came in. His name is Bobby and he had the automatic bed-maker. I said, “Bobby, how the heck would you ever think of that.” He said, “well, I had to make my bed before I could eat breakfast. I got tired of going to school with no breakfast.”

He came up with this idea, he rigged up ropes through the bedspread, the sheets and the blanket, and he put a little crank on the front of the bed and everything was cranked right up, military style. Six years old. Are you kidding me? The guy should be running one of the Fortune 500 companies, and he probably will. That's what got me thinking, wow, this has to happen nationwide. We got to take 50 million Bobbys creating ideas, not once a year, like on the government invention day, at least, what it used to be. We need 50 million Bobbys inventing new ideas every single day.

You want to pay attention here, because it's going to be some homework. You didn't just come here, and you get to sit there all day long. We are going to get you dialed in here and do some homework. We got a little competition, and I hope you like it. I've got about 20 different things to create new ideas, obviously I do this in 30 minutes. If you take a look, magnification makes things bigger, you makes things smaller, that's minification. Aggregation, you combine two things, so if you had wood and you had frozen water you would get a Popsicle. Addition, one plus one equals 10, just like I just told you with a Popsicle. Subtraction, you take something off away from the existing product. You can run the alphabet forward and backwards and there are 16 other techniques that I can teach.

Here's subtraction: I played college baseball at the University of New Hampshire. I was throwing with Carlton Fisk one day, I'm sure you know the name of the Red Sox. Carlton said he invented my automatic curveball, that was my first invention. He said, “listen, I used to cut apples in Charleston, New Hampshire, and we would throw apples at my brothers and I. That's how I learned to hit the curveball.” I said, “you know, Carlton, that's probably true, but while you and your brothers were out there making applesauce, guess what I was making? Those automatic curveballs.”

I think the key of what we are talking about today is, don't wait. You have to start today. Now, you heard of the American Revolution? I'm saying we should have the American Revovention, and that's to create ideas, instantly, every day. Just like it's part of math or science or technology, every single day. I'm advocating because it started right here in Massachusetts; Lexington and Concord, this is a great spot to do it. I filed for a trademark on that.

I do believe that the key is confidence and belief. Now, if a kid comes to school, and he is abused, this right here is his only salvation: you. That is, he has to question, “Mrs. Jones, can I go to the moon today?” “Yes.” That's the answer, but maybe not until tomorrow. I believe that's the key. Playing Mozart in your classroom, very important. Your class is a think tank. I believe you can actually license the ideas to companies that generate out of your classroom. You can profit by it. Both yourself, the school and the student.

Here's my dad and I playing baseball in 1970. Your homework today: you are kind of sitting far apart, but you don't have to do it right now. You pick a partner, you use your four initials and the techniques that I just gave you, and what you are going to do, is come up with a product and email it to me. We are going to have a competition. As an example, let's say that we have Nancy Carter sitting out here and Terry Parker. When you combine their initials, you get new cancer treatment program at home. Alright, that's minification, you don't have to go to Mass General anymore to get your cancer treatment, you can actually do it at home.

You're going to take your initials with your partner and try to come up with a new product. What happens is the first partners to send their idea to me, you'll be throwing out the first pitch at the Lowell Spinners Red Sox game. The next two winners are going to be voted on by Tufton Borough Elementary School kids. They will judge your ideas and see what kind of caliber of your ideas are. You will have three teams, they will all be throwing out the first pitch at the Lowell Spinners Red Sox game this summer. You can't send anything to me until lunchtime; that will give you enough time to hopefully come up with some great ideas. The contest will run all week until Friday at 5 p.m. There you go. That's where you will be throwing, so you want to practice. You might want to have a catch with your husband or your son or daughter.

I heard this on the radio the other day: 33 percent of all math students are overweight or obese. I was thinking, you got a guy like Steve Jobs, brilliant mind, what would happen if he had lived to be 88 instead of, I think, 58? He wasn't overweight, but he got pancreatic cancer. You educate a kid for 16 years, and he dies of a heart attack because he's overweight at 25. I won't go into these, but these are brain foods. If the kids aren't sticking good energy foods into their brains, how are they going to come up with great ideas? Impossible. You can get this all on Scott's video. Here's three different slides on brain food. They've got to eat these things, I mean, if you put sand in your car, you are not going anywhere.

Motivation quotes, I won’t read them, but I can expand on them if I happen to talk to you sometime, or I come to your school. I really believe, “be nice to everyone, but wait for no one.” That applies to everything in life, I believe. The other one I just said, “go full speed, you don't know if you’re going to be given two innings or nine.” I do believe humor is the key, and I'm advocating you take four kids to tell four jokes, one apiece, one minute apiece, every day, you get those kids laughing. It changes the chemical balance in their brains. You might even develop the next Jimmy Fallon, that's true. Here is something, when they check out of your classroom, if all your students have every one of those cells and all those traits and characteristics on there, I can guarantee you, they’re going to score runs and hit home runs.

I had this idea. Did anybody ever feel like taking a nap in school around 1 or 2 p.m.? I'll be darned. I'm amazed at that. I thought if you combined schools with hotels, you would get “schooltels,” then you could actually take a nap, maybe during recess or lunch, or in between the periods. You think that's funny? Right, well, guess what, the smart minds of Fortune 500 companies like Nike, Google, those people are taking naps. Why shouldn't you have a nap? You have more stress than any of those guys.

Create a sense of urgency. You tell your students, “today is the best day of your life to make your dream come true.” You have to make sure they understand not next year, not five years from now, Bobby, Jimmy, Jane, Allison, we are doing it now, right now, not waiting for tomorrow. [...] I'm just trying to get you to act right now. Not tomorrow: right now. [...]

Here's a testimony, when I spoke at the University of New Hampshire, you can read that when you want, that was my business school, I went to the Whittemore school there. I told you the magic donut story. Francis wanted me to put this in there, and Scott. It's a great analogy that you can tell anybody: it's never too late to start, just get them right out there. Don't let them think that they need a college degree to start moving, start getting base hits, hitting home runs, no way. They are in the first grade, just like Bobby, he's out there selling those automatic bed makers. He didn't have to go to MIT or have four PhDs. Get them going right now.

There's my contact information; hopefully you'll be able to come up with some great inventions there. There is my email there, you can shoot them right over to me. All those products need to be at my email at 5 p.m. by Friday and we will then, the first one in starting at noontime, lunchtime, not now, you automatically qualify to throw the first two pitches at the Lowell Spinners Red Sox game. Then the next two that we voted on by the elementary kids at Tufton Borough Elementary School, where I went to school. They're going to find out just how smart you are. They will pick the next two winners, so we will have six ladies and gentlemen going to the Red Sox Lowell Spinners this summer. They are going to announce you there, going to announce your products, and then you're going to have to throw a strike. I can't help you with that.

I would be happy to answer any questions. I think Scott is probably down to me being about five, ten minutes left, and anything that I've said or anything that related to innovation or invention. I've done over 40 different products mostly in sports. I just introduced my second golf ball Monday night in New Jersey to 100 golf writers. You may know the name Ron Jaworski; he is on ESPN. He was the NFL quarterback for the Eagles. Anyway, we introduced a brand-new ball at Ron's course Monday night to 100 golf writers who had them out there and they were belting the balls -- a little contest, three shots to the pin. It was a lot of fun. The only thing that didn't work out, because you never know when you do these things, all of a sudden, I had a sprinkler attack me from behind. I had no shampoo. That's the way it works out.

I would field any question, anything related to inventions, how you are going to get these kids motivated. How we are going to start spitting out 50 million inventions every single day. The USA needs it. We have to turn this country around and create more jobs and more dollars for yourself as well as every American. It's not a pipe dream; I've done it in the backwoods of New Hampshire and I know you can do it at your schools with your class, with your kids.

In 1975, my brothers and I were on the beach in Florida and we were playing touch football with some girls. My father said, “what are you boys doing tonight?” And I said, just kind of being wise and wise-apple, I said, “well, Dad, we're just going to keep on playing touch football with these girls.” He said, “well, that's kind of stupid, because you can't see the football.” I said, “well, you know what, if we had a light in the football we could.” But we didn't, so I don't know what we did. When we came home, I made a lighted football. We went out to the backwoods of Tufton Borough with three feet of snow, throwing that lighted football around, going crazy. I started making lighted footballs in the fall of ’75 and introduced in ’76. Then I lit up everything, regarding sports. Tennis balls, Frisbee, wiffle balls, hockey pucks, tees, putters right down the line.

Until -- and what Scott wanted me to tell you, I'm over in Westford -- anybody from Westford or around that area? A friend of mine, Eddie, goes, “hey Corky, where's the golf ball?” I said, “Eddie that's kind of dumb, nobody plays golf in the dark, what are you, crazy?” I did not play golf at the time. He said no, we want a ball that we can actually finish the last couple of holes. I said, “do you have any balls?” He said, “yeah, right down the cellar.” I said, “well, I'll make you some balls after dinner.” I went down, drilled a dozen balls out there, plugged them with little PVC inserts, stuck the light stick in there, and I said, “Eddie, there are your balls. Don't call me, I'll call you.” Monday, he calls and he said, “I need more balls, Corky, you have to get into the golf ball business.” I said, “what are you, nuts? This is a stupid idea.” He said, “I'm telling you, if you are smart, you will get in the golf ball business.” Lighted golf balls.

I went to Lowell Mass, Chelmsford, 24 years made millions of lighted golf balls right there in Middlesex County. Monday night, I just told you, we introduced a brand-new ball; it doesn't use luminescent light, it uses a new technology. We impregnated the pigment inside the sureline inside the golf ball that you charge if you come to the little booth out here, out at the table out here, I'll show you, some of you have seen it. You charge that ball for 45 seconds, boom, you got light. Like a Titleist Pro VI, it will light up, until you are 119 years old. There you go. 

I think if you sit down, Scott, between now and 10 p.m. tonight, we would have four notebooks full. That's a hard answer. I can light up anything in sports I know that, but I'm not sure there's a lot of other applications.

Scott Morrison: Does anyone have questions? Questions to Corky about his path to innovation? We have one over here.

Audience member: Great talk. I was just wondering what everyone learns from their mistakes, I think, as an inventor, so we would love to hear about a great mistake you had and what that led to eventually.

Newcomb: I never made one. Scott gave me 30 minutes; I would need 30 years. That is the honest answer to that. I would tell you this much, every mistake I ever made taught me something, and I think that's a great lesson, and that's a great question. You got to tell those kids, “I don't care if you make a thousand mistakes today Bobby, Jennifer, Allison, Jimmy. I want you to make mistakes.” That's the only way that they're going to learn.

I had a slide in there, my wife said, “you going to choke them, you've got to many slides.” She did, she tossed about a third of my slides out. She's a professional speaker. I told her, “Betsy, listen. Risk and fear? I can talk about risk and fear all day long, and it's essential.” I don't know why she threw it out.

Anyway, risk and fear is key. You got to make sure these kids understand it's okay to take a risk, and the only fear, the only thing that you have to fear is basically, failure, and that's not an option. You got to just tell them, “look, we need innovation. We need you. Your brain is as important as all of those guys over at MIT right now, Stanford, wherever.”

That kid right there, Bobby, making that automatic bed maker, that kid right there, [...] he believes nothing is impossible, nothing is crazy. He has not been tampered, he has not been contaminated, and he's not looking to spit back something to you. That's pure.

I'm pretty religious when it comes to that, and I don't mean in the church. On those automatic curveballs I was talking to you about, Carlton Fisk. I made 57 different prototypes. I will exhaust the idea ... some people say, “for analysis, by analysis.” I want to make sure all of my options are analyzed. Every single conceivable method that I can think of, and I will go tap other brains. I am religious when it comes to doing my homework, so I don't get my legs blown off, hopefully.

What I mean by that is I will go into the garden clubs, I will going to the schools, I will go into the Kiwanis Clubs, Rotary, Lions. I will going to wherever my prime market is. I will measure the pulse today, tomorrow, the next day and I will keep measuring pulses as long as the pulse starts beating, and the beating is beating faster, then I will go faster. Dump more money into it, start my molding process.

By the way, those curveballs, I just came through Beverly, I stayed in Beverly last night. Those curveball molds were made right there, Beverly pattern, in Beverly, in 1976. I don't know if that answers your question, but you need to try to buy insurance against failing. That's my way of doing it, putting my whole body, not my toe, into what I think the potential market is and listening. I never have an opinion. My opinion is aggregate of everybody in the entire room that I’m surveying. Then I will then be given my opinion; that's how I do it.

One more thing to say, and I'm all done, Scott. All I would like to do is to stand up right now, if you would stand up, please. If you would just turn to the closest person to you, and just say in your most convincing sales pitch, boys, that “I am going to start the American Revovention in my classroom today.” That's out loud enough, it's not loud enough, not loud enough! Come on, let me hear it. That's what we want, yes! Just like they had you do in the lobby, three times, “revovention” as loud as you can, three times. Revovention -- you ready? One, Revovention! Two, Revovention! Three, Revovention! Now, go do it. Thank you.

Morrison: Guys, before you go anywhere -- thank you, Corky -- if you would just have a seat for one second before you exit. We have about one minute left, and I just want to reverse the questions. I actually have a question for folks in the audience, and I would love to hear your thoughts on this. As you leave this session today, what's resonating? What are your takeaways from what you just heard? What are the takeaways that you can apply to your classrooms? What are some of the messages that you heard? Someone offer.

Yes, don't wait, I would agree. Don't wait, there's no need to wait, I think we often, in education, we're waiting for someone to tell us, “you should go and do, you should go and do to that” and I think we saw that with the STEM Squared sessions, when folks were coming up for those sessions. Going back to the classes and trying different things right away; it's okay to try, it's okay to experiment, it's okay to fail, so I would agree with you 100%, don't wait. We still have three weeks of school left, right? Plenty of time to go in and have conversations with kids and get them launched into the summertime. Other messages, other takeaways that you are taking from this talk today?

Time, who just said that, with a hand? Yes, exactly, time. Time is important and we know that is a valuable commodity in our schools. Do you have something? Encourage risk-taking. I think our kids are all too often afraid to fail, and it's okay to fail. I think it's a very strong and powerful message as well.

Images courtesy of speaker. 

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