83-year-old inventor creates handy tray for walkers

Man founded sports retailer and invented downriggers for fishing

By Dan Nielsen
Traverse City Record-Eagle

MAPLETON, Mich. (AP) - An inventive mind never stops generating new ideas to solve old problems.

John Emory, 83, conceived a folding utility tray that can be attached to a walker to make life easier for elderly folks. He patented the idea, then sold it to a manufacturer who will introduce it at the annual Medtrade home medical equipment expo and conference in Atlanta, Georgia, Oct. 27-29.

"We expect some tremendous growth in sales for our organization," Karl Chapel, president of Grand Haven Custom Molding, told the Traverse City Record-Eagle.

Chapel's company will produce the product invented by Emory.

"We've had great response from people we've surveyed," Chapel said. "His idea is something that is so easy, so simple, you can't figure out why somebody didn't do this before."

Emory isn't new to creating fresh ideas. He founded Big Jon Sports in 1968. He invented the company's signature downriggers for fishing deep beneath the surface. He sold the company in 1996. The still-thriving business is based in Interlochen.

Fishing became an obsession early in Emory's life.

"I grew up being a fisherman," Emory said. "If I could get out of something, I'd go fishing."

That was years ago. Emory no longer goes fishing. He lost his wife to breast cancer. They did not have children. With age came hip trouble. Emory spends much of his time in the living room of his small home halfway up Old Mission Peninsula.

The walker constantly parked in front of his recliner began drawing his eye. It was within easy reach if he needed it. It rested on the carpet just taking up space.

"I thought, 'Boy, such a waste of an item,'" he said. "It's sitting there, and can only be used in motion."

He hatched the idea of converting the low-slung seat on wheels into a table. Instead of merely taking up living room space, the walker could function as a handy tray for a book, a laptop computer, a purse, glasses or a meal.

He sketched a design that detailed how a tray/tabletop could attach to his walker and fold out of the way. He had a local shop create a sturdy working prototype. He applied for a patent. He showed the design to a trusted friend, Shane Ruboyianes, who owns Ludington-based Dreamweaver Lures. Ruboyianes saw the possibility for sales and brought Chapel into the picture. Emory sold the patent. The new owners refined the product, finalized design and have set up tooling to produce it.

"The marriage worked out real good," Emory said of the business deal.

The plastic tray will be sold in kit form. Slight variations in the way walkers are built require two kinds of attachment clamps, so different kits will be sold. The trays will be offered in various colors. Purchasers will need to clamp the device to their own walker. Once installed, the tray can be folded out of the way with one hand in about a second.

Emory will earn royalties from sales of the device.

And he's not yet done inventing. He's already working on a product that could make it easier for the elderly - or anyone with mobility issues - to stand up from a sitting position.

His brain also is working on a related issue that was triggered by the power outage during August's big storm. Emory was relaxing in his electrically powered recliner, fully reclined. The power went out. It stayed out. Emory regularly lifts weights and was able to muscle his way out of the chair and get back on his feet. But many folks his age would have been stuck in the chair until help arrived. Emory now is applying his inventive mind to seek a solution.

"When you're an inventor, it's a challenge," Emory said. "I never looked at it like a way to generate money. I did it because I enjoy it."

He has been enjoying challenges for decades.

He recalled his frontal attack 50 years ago on the problem posed in a section of Grand Traverse Bay by wooden pilings that were nearly invisible just below the surface of the water.

Emory applied dynamite to eliminate that possible source of boating accidents. Problem solved.

Published: Wed, Oct 14, 2015