He's the cream in your coffee. He's the topping on your pie. He's Robert E. Rich Sr., B.S. '35, perhaps not a household name like Clarence Birdseye, but an innovator who has impacted our daily diets as much as the frozen-food pioneer.
The founder and chairman of Rich Products Corporation took the industry to new heights in the 1940s with the launching of "the miracle cream from the soya bean." Rich's Whip Topping was the result of the discovery that soy protein could be extracted from a soybean and used as the base for soy milk-a non-dairy product that could be used as a cheaper alternative to cream, or whipped up into a topping with substantial shelf life.
That led to a parade of products from non-dairy creamers to desserts and an even more remarkable discovery-the Freeze Flo process that became the first frozen food able to be consumed without thawing.
Meanwhile, over the past 50 years, Rich Products has grown to become the nation's largest family-owned frozen food manufacturer, topping a billion dollars in sales with worldwide distribution.
The young Rich acquired insights into the dairy business from his father, who owned a thriving ice-cream company in Buffalo. He acquired insights into the business world from the university's School of Business Administration, entering the fledgling school in the fall of 1931 as one of only 31 students in his class.
During a recent interview, the 82-year-old UB alumnus recalled those days with great fondness, beginning with the quality of teaching.
"We only had one professor who did not have a doctorate-that was quite unusual in those days," he said. "The university had done a great job in purloining professors from other schools. They got professors from Wharton and Harvard, so we had a very good faculty. The most impressive were Dr. Livermore, Dr. Norton and Dr. Tibbetts."
Rich indicated that the quality of education he received was a motivating force to a young man who wanted to make his own mark in the business world, rather than merely assume the reins of a modest family operation.
He cherishes the lifelong relationships he has maintained among his small graduating class, remembering their postgraduate, Depression-influenced days. "The smartest guy in our class was getting $12 a week as a shoe salesman. He later went on to get his M.B.A. and became a college professor."
Familiar landmarks of the original North Buffalo campus become a living history from an eyewitness to their formulative years. "Norton Union was built the last year I was at the university. But up until then, the only food you had was in the basement of Hayes Hall, where they had a couple of milk machines. The students would brown-bag it and get a bottle of milk from one of those milk machines. And they'd play cards at one of the tables afterwards."
The names on some of those landmarks evoke personal recollections, such as the humorous aside from the usually serious Samuel P. Capen, UB chancellor from 1922-1950. "On graduation day I was walking with him and I saw the human side of him. He was talking about the mortarboard. He said, 'I do not know if it's the mortarboard that I'm wearing or the ceremony that's giving me quite a headache.'"
Rich's personal life was impacted considerably during his student days when he met Janet Webb, now the "matriarch" of Rich Products. "We got married when I was a junior in school and last February we celebrated 61 years of marriage. That's pretty good, isn't it?"
Rich reserves a special place for the role that athletics played in his university experience.
"For two years in a row, I was captain of the university football team," he proudly stated. "I started the wrestling team and was captain of it in my sophomore and junior years. In my senior year, I coached because our wrestling coach got a full-time job in a steel company in Chicago just before the season started."
His sporting endeavors are what prompted him to establish a commitment to contributions in the field of UB athletics. In recent years, he has pledged more than $1 million in support of the university's athletic program.
"I don't think there's any better place for your contributions than education," he explained. "If you give it to the government, they'll waste it. This way you know right where it goes."
Rich has played a much more hands-on role in UB development than check-writing, however. He served as president of the Alumni Association and as a member of the Board of Trustees and the UB Council at an integral time in the development of the campus-when interest was expressed in the school becoming part of the SUNY system. The merger took place in 1962, following a series of complex negotiations.
"The real reason it came about was that the state told us that if they didn't take over the university, they were going to take over State Teachers College, pump money into it and make it a university," he indicated. "Over the years, we had some fund drives, but Buffalo did not have the big money like Rochester, where they have so many home-owned industries. So you can see it would just be impossible for Buffalo to have a commanding university like we have today, if we had not gone to the state system."
Rich said he is very pleased with the way the university has subsequently developed over the years-particularly during the current administration.
"I'll tell you when I started taking a stronger interest. That was when Bill Greiner became president of the university," he stated. "I think he's a great, great addition to the university and doing a great job."
Rich has been the recipient of a wide range of awards from UB over the past 40 years. They include the Distinguished Service Award, 1955; Samuel P. Capen Alumni Award, 1959; Niagara Frontier Businessman of the Year; and Business Administration Alumni Award, 1966. In 1987, he received an Honorary Doctorate of Laws Degree during commencement ceremonies.
Rather than rest on any contributing laurels, though, Rich pledges to continue playing a major role as an alumnus, realizing the even greater economic demands looming over university life today-financial considerations that tower over his original UB encounter.
"Do you know how much tuition was back then?" he asks. "Three hundred fifty dollars," he responds with an ironic chuckle.
JIM BISCO is a writer with Creative Concepts of WNY, an advertising/video production company in East Aurora, N.Y.