A City College Toy Story

A City College Toy Story Winter 2001

Seen here with some of his creations-notably the classic game “Connect Four” at right-is Howard Wexler, world-famous toy inventor and City College graduate. This fall he returned to his alma mater to teach a month-long course, “Creativity-A Practical Approach,” for the Adult and Continuing Education (ACE) program that focused on nurturing and marketing his students’ own creativity.

Dr. Wexler, whose Ph.D. is not surprisingly in psychology, can boast a 30-year career in fun and games. He has created more than 125 toys that have sold world-wide, and, beside heading his own toy design company (Interplay, Inc.), he has developed products for Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, Disney on Ice, Crayola, and such big birds of toydom as Hasbro, Mattel, and Milton Bradley.

A lifelong New Yorker who grew up in a Lower East Side tenement, Wexler was the only member of his family to graduate from high school. It was only after entering City College and studying educational psychology that he came to recognize that he was dyslexic. “This has motivated me to return to academe,” he says, “I want to pass on some of the things which have enabled me to overcome obstacles.” Wexler worked his way through college and graduate school, receiving both B.S. and M.S. degrees in education and education psychology, respectively, at CCNY.

Among Wexler’s most notable creations are “Your Baby” (the first comprehensive developmental line of infant toys), the “Rodney Dangerfield Game,” “Obsession,” “Touché,” and “Stuffs” (a line of sports toys carrying the Spaulding and Wilson trade names). And of course “Connect Four,” which was introduced in 1974.

Asked by ACE director, Dr. Jane MacKillop, about a favorite among his toys, Wexler nominated a mobile which he made flat rather than vertical-much more appealing to a horizontal baby. “Prior to 1970 there were no infant toys,” he says, “none that really considered the baby’s line of vision and it derives pleasure from its surroundings. The mobile set a new standard in infant toys.” Motivated by the wide appeal of “Connect Four,” he is working on a version for toddlers.

“City College was delighted to welcome Howard Wexler back,” MacKillop says. “He brought very special gifts, along with a sense of youthful joy and an understanding of what it takes to become successful in business and in life.”

Wexler had a very interesting group of would-be entrepreneurs to work with. Students included a local lawyer, a dietician from a Harlem hospital, CCNY faculty, and staff from the Harlem Congregations for Community Improvement. Interests ranged from T-shirt design, to establishing a store for tourists who come to Harlem, to lockable clothes hangers. Singer/songwriter Ilana Martin, for example, on Wexler’s advice took the plunge and focused on one song, “Dream a Dream.” She performed it at a charity engagement in L.A., produced a CD, and is now poised to market the song. Jay Birthwright, whose idols are the Harlem-based clothing designers Fubu, is moving ahead with his plans for T-shirt production.

Wexler also shared with the class his experience with patents, copyright, and trade marks, explaining the advantages and disadvantages of each. And he stressed the importance of personal contacts and urged the class to fearlessly and single-mindedly pursue their dreams. “Even when we fail, we learn from our failures.”

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