Rifton Celebrates a Veteran Designer and Co-worker

Carmen Hinkey | November 2014

A portrait of Ullu, a product designer for Rifton.Old-world craftsmanship lasts a life-time, once acquired, and the craftsman earns a special place in the hearts of his co-workers.  Here at Rifton we miss and fondly remember such a man who died this month.

Born in 1930 in Germany, Ulrich, affectionately known as Ullu, came to America as a young father and worked in our Rifton manufacturing from the early 1980’s until a few weeks before he passed. He was 84 years old.

Careful and exacting by nature, Ullu had an eye for design, symmetry and balance, and soon became involved in Rifton product design.  There was more, though.  A personal sorrow, the deaths of two of his own children to illness and birth trauma, drew Ullu’s sympathies to the particular burdens of children with developmental disabilities.  

The earliest iteration of Rifton’s gait trainer was designed for use with the MOVE Program and was used by students all over the country. Up for redesign in March of 2000, it became the Pacer gait trainer, a name now synonymous with top-notch quality and durability. Ullu was a member of the design team that brought the early, boxy model into the 21st century. As part of the design process, I travelled with him and the team members to Hospital for Sick Children in Washington DC, where therapists trialed the prototype for their kiddos. A tall man, Ullu would get to his knees to watch what the therapists were doing, wanting to understand exactly what they needed in order to incorporate those features into the product design.

In 1996, Ullu travelled to the William S. Baer School in Baltimore to attend a photo shoot for the Mobile Stander. His concern for getting it perfect pulled him into a series of shots, and the 1997 Rifton catalog cover includes Ullu, a student , and one of their lead therapy advisors.

The addition of the XL and Mini Pacers in 2008 provided Ullu with an opportunity to teach younger designers our processes, and as certified engineers they learned from the older craftsman.

 Ullu still loved to see Rifton products in use and for many years he attended the annual Abilities Expo in Edison New Jersey.  A recipient of a hip replacement that went bad, Ullu could never sit comfortably in a vehicle, and would sometimes stretch his long frame on a mattress in an emptied cargo van in order to attend.  The day was always capped by dinner at his favorite steak house on New Jersey’s Route 17, alas no longer open.

The last years saw Ullu coming to the Rifton factory for the company of his co-workers, and to do some of the simpler sub-assemblies from a semi-reclined position at a carefully positioned work table. A young intern at his side, Ullu created a space of tranquility and thoughtfulness in a busy factory.

He stayed in touch with some of Rifton’s therapist customers, and he maintained a warm friendship with them long after his design years. On hearing about Ullu’s death, a therapist responded: “Thank you for telling me. He was a giant.”  He was, in every way: warm of heart, intelligent, artistic, caring, generous.  His memory will remain strong at Rifton.

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