Thomas J. Lester in full golf regalia, standing with "Big Bertha", his 1908 Mercedes, next to his Great American Race trophy, holding an aluminum die cast transmission valve body.
Thomas J. Lester
September 20, 1919 - August 1, 2004.
This page is dedicated to Dale's closest friend, Tom Lester. Tom and Dale were friends since Dale started restoring cars for Tom in the early 1980s, and grew extremely close in the final decade of Tom's life. Tom helped Dale soldier through some extremely hard times, and provided life changing advice.
Dale thinks it is a crime that no information on Tom comes up on web searches, so we hope that this page will get noticed!
After Tom's death, Dale wrote an obituary in his honor. It is posted here below:
Thomas J. Lester was the third generation of master machinists. In order to understand the accomplishments of Tom Lester, you need to understand his heritage.
The village of Klitchev, about 75 miles from Minsk in White Russia, was home to a master mechanic named Samuel Meyer Lesternrck. In September of 1884, Samuel and his wife Phyllis Rebecca had a son named Nathan. World War II would later ravage the inhabitants of this area, but in the 1890s Samuel was able to provide a good living for his family by working as the superintendent of a combination flour mill, saw mill and woolen mill.
Nathan apprenticed for three years in a machine shop/blacksmith shop/foundry near Minsk. Upon completing his apprenticeship in 1902, Nathan Lesternrck went to work in the shop of Zalkind & Wellbushevitz, which manufactured sawmill equipment and steam engines. Nathan began to court Miss Gussie Pollak whom he met at a wedding in Bobruisk. Consent to marry was conditional on their moving to America. Traveling through Germany to England, they reached Philadelphia in February 1905. Having some family in the states helped them incorporate into society. Nathan learned English in night school and studied engineering in a course offered by the International Correspondence School.
Now Nathan Lester, he quickly found work making dies for punch presses. The he worked for a contractor working on the Fourth Avenue Subway and Manhattan Bridge. Later, working at a machine shop, he was soon promoted to assistant foreman. After a short stint on the Panama Railroad (he couldn’t tolerate the climate) he went to work for Mergenthaler Linotype Co. of Brooklyn, his first exposure to die casting. Within three years, he had advanced to the position of top tool maker. In 1910 another job in NYC had him developing pantograph machines to be used for machining dies. In 1912, Nathan joined the newly formed American Die Casting Co. in Brooklyn. In the next few years jobs took him to Mt. Vernon, NY and then Latrobe, PA where Lester was one of the four stock holders and developed a new type of die cast machine. The Latrobe Co. was one of the first to cast aluminum. He next moved to New Jersey where he developed the art of die casting automobile hardware and magneto casings for Liberty motors. About this time baby Tom came on the scene. By then Nathan had a son William, and two daughters: Rose and May. Baby Phyllis would follow Tom two years later.
Now in hot demand, he moved to Worcester, Mass. to manage the Atlas Die Casting Co. After that he became a consultant and started patenting his designs. The family moved to Cleveland right around the time of the stock market crash. For a while, Nathan had his own tool and die shop. He began working with the Reed-Prentiss Co. to build the first Lester die casting machines. In 1935 opportunity knocked in a big way. The Phoenix Machine Co., a maker of ice machines had been sitting idle due to the newfangled refrigerator. Lester had ideas, Phoenix had the factory. They joined forces, and soon the Phoenix name was dropped and the new company became Lester Engineering. Now with his name on the plant thirty years after coming ashore, Nathan began building Lester die casting machines, a name still used today.
Tom was a precocious child, who by his own admission failed to excel in school. His father saw little hope in his youngest son, but Tom said his mother always believed her Tommy was meant for greatness. Mother was right. Inheriting the mechanical aptitude of his father and grandfather, Tom grew up around his father’s shop and learned the die maker’s trade at a young age. He apprenticed under his father’s master machinist Bill Schwartz. In the pre World War II era, a person with Tom’s training and ability was still highly regarded. Skilled craftsmen were still appreciated and recruited from the “Old World”.
As World War II broke out, Tom was drafted by the army. The day before his physical, he bumped into his father’s friend and husband of his sister Rose, Dave White. Dave asked Tom how he was doing, and Tom told him that it was his last day before going off to war. The next day at the draft induction center, Tom’s name was called ahead of all the others. They took him out of line, only to find Dave White waiting for him. As it turns out, Dave was with NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics) and he had the pull to keep Tom out of a uniform and back into a machinist’s apron. He had too much irreplaceable talent to risk losing overseas. Tom’s tooling and die making skills immediately paid off. NACA, which today is the NASA Lewis Research Center in Cleveland, put 22 year old Tom into turbine engine development. In 1942, Tom was figuring out how to make the first jet turbine blades. Drawing on his experience gained from his father and Bill Schwartz, Tom figured out the difficult machining operation and then set up a department of over 20 people to make the blades. In 1943, the army realized that Tom had never taken his induction physical and sent him back to the induction center. Like so many other tests in his early life, Tom promptly failed. He had a bad throat. Now he was unemployed and back at his father’s shop.
Towards the end of the war, Tom was approached by Howard and Maury Abrams, who owned Curtis Key. They wanted to start a die casting company and needed Tom’s skills to get started. Tom was given one third of the shares in the new National Molded Products Co. After a short time, the Abrams brothers bought Tom’s shares back. In November of 1946, with that money and a loan from his brother Bill, he bought three of his father’s machines and started the Lester Casting Co. He set up shop in Cleveland at 1711 West 33rd St. in the building that was formerly the Phoenix Horse Blanket Company.
Initially business was tough, requiring long hours and lots travel to find customers. As a newcomer to the casting business, Tom was only able to get the difficult jobs that the other die casters didn’t want. This rough duty was an opportunity in disguise as the difficult jobs challenged Tom and increased his proficiency. He was able to prove again and again that his company was where to go when the others failed. To this day, the Lester name remains the premiere name in die castings, a heritage going back to the old horse blanket factory days.
By 1954, Lester Castings was moved to a new building in Bedford Heights, Ohio. This facility continued to grow to its current 96,000 square feet. New customers continued coming and by 1968 annual sales had exceeded ten million dollars.
In 1966, Tom and some of his friends including Edgar North, Phil Hill and Benny Goldflies, began making tires for antique cars, under the name of the Lincoln Highway Tire Company. By 1968 they could produce 40 different sizes. Ultimately he and Ed North would become the Lester Tire Company. A steady supply of tires fueled the growth of the antique car hobby, a hobby which has grown into a multibillion dollar a year industry. Lester tires still grace the wheels of many of the rarest and most beautiful cars in the world.
As Tom prospered, he continued to share with those around him, particularly his employees. In the early sixties he and Fred Crawford were the only white men invited to the Annual Colored Policeman’s Banquet (as it was known at the time). It seems Tom and Fred were not afraid to hire and train members of the black community, treating and promoting them as equals. Apparently the staunchly conservative Tom was actually a bleeding heart conservative. He was wise enough to use his company to the benefit of the entire community. Modern management has forgotten to do this, and Tom daily worried about the short sightedness of today’s executives who are often unwilling to invest in our own country and neighborhoods.
In 1970, Tom got to meet then Governor Jimmy Carter. Carter encouraged Tom to build a new plant in poverty stricken rural Georgia. In 1972, Lester Industries opened its new 30,000 square foot plant in Rome, GA. That plant grew to 117,000 square feet and is still operating today.
One of the die casting jobs that Tom was most proud of are the valve bodies used in modern automatic transmissions. They were originally made of cast iron and required much machining. Tom developed the tooling to cast the difficult shapes that would be needed. Valve bodies are still a big part of the current production in several of the Lester plants. The combined plants currently manufacture more than 20,000 valve bodies per day.
Continuing in the development of new ideas for castings, Tom started Lester Wheel Co. to manufacture aluminum motorcycle and bicycle wheels. If you look around at modern automobiles, you’ll see that most have cast aluminum wheels. If Tom had not retired in 1980 upon the sale of Lester Industries to ITT, I imagine many of today’s cars would be riding on Lester wheels.
Other Lester business operations included Scott Industries for aluminum heat treating and injection molding. Tom’s son Bob and employee Bill Tecco bought the injection molding company and operated it as Texler Inc. until a few years ago.
After retiring, Tom started Lester Engines in Deerfield Beach, FL. Among other things they built high performance engines for Wellcraft boats.
In the early nineties Tom finally fully retired to his own private restoration shop at his home in Coconut Creek, where he enjoyed a simpler life than in the previous 70 plus years.
Tom was greatly loved and respected by his employees. He had a number of principles that former employees have shared with me:
Do it right the first time.
Respect your craftsmen, turn them loose to succeed or fail, and respect their choices.
Share your success with those who have helped you achieve it.
Allow others to teach you.
In order to win, it is not necessary to make the other person lose.
Be true to your own word.
If you promise it, live up to the promise.
Teach by example.
Don’t be stingy with honest praise.
Ed North said, “I appreciate Tom Lester more than anyone I have ever known.” Ed is not alone in his feelings.
Tom’s life was not all work; he knew how to have a good time. He had a NASCAR team, professional motorcycle race team, and sponsored off shore powerboat racing with Lester Engines. But his love of vintage cars is what he will be most remembered for. Owning more than 500 cars in his lifetime, he was a knowledgeable collector. Mercedes, Lozier, Simplex, Duesenberg, Rolls-Royce, Packard and Pierce-Arrow automobiles, as well as Buicks, Nashes and Fords were found in his collection. During the collection’s peak years in the 1980’s, Car Collector Magazine named his collection one of the top ten in the nation. One of the reasons it was picked is because of the great balance of history the collection represented. Tom’s vast automotive knowledge showed in the choice of vehicles he collected. He chose the best cars in their class, even if they weren’t the most expensive.
More than anything, Tom loved to tour his cars. He liked them old, big and fast. He participated in nearly a dozen transcontinental tours. Among the tour routes were New York to San Francisco, Portland, Maine to Portland, Oregon, and along the Continental Divide from Texas to Canada. He also toured his cars in the British Isles, Ireland and Australia. With his beloved “Big Bertha”, a 1908 Mercedes, he won the great American Race, a coast to coast timed rally of antique cars. He participated in the Great American Race numerous times with Big Bertha.
Those who toured with Tom can attest that he did not like to be passed. His cars were always “Lesterized”, souped up to run faster than they did when they were new. Always a true sportsman, he was quick to lend a hand fixing other cars on the tours. “Mr. Lester” had earned his skills the hard way, in the shop. Few realized that the guy with the finest cars around had humble beginnings and most of all, he remembered those humble beginnings.
Golf also played a big part in Tom’s life. A great competitor, bets made on the golf course were legendary around his employees. “Did you hear how much TJ bet so and so a hole?” I guess they were worried they’d come to work one day and find somebody else’s name on the company. On one trip to the Sebring Race in Florida, during a golf outing after the race, Tom shot a double eagle at the local course. Some people may have heard about that.
While up north, Tom was a fixture at the Beachmont Country Club in Pepper Pike, Ohio. In Florida he belonged to the Boca Rio, Deer Creek and Adios Country Clubs. He was one of the first members of Adios and treasured his many friends that he made there.
Tom’s family was extremely important to him. He was devoted to his lovely wife Janie, who made his last years the best they could be. Tom had four children and nine grandchildren. His oldest son Bob and wife Phyllis who live in Solon, Ohio have a daughter Beth and three sons, Seth, Nathaniel and Jonathon. Son Gary and his wife Nancy live in Bainbridge, Ohio. His daughter Natalie Margolis and her husband Jay live in Boynton Beach, FL. They have three daughters: Elana, Samantha and Rebecca. His daughter Marianne Lester recently passed away, and is survived by her sons Cory Luebben and Craig Luebben.
His extended family includes Janie’s children Kevin and Susan Engel, Darrin and Jodie Engel and their children, all from south Florida. Janie’s daughter Kathy Stephens lives in North Carolina with her husband Chris and their children. Tom is also a great grandfather.
All of us who knew him will miss his sense of humor, willingness to fight for a friend, kind advice, and not so kind advice. He loved us all deeply and showed it. We have all learned from the life of this man, and that is his greatest gift to us. We’ll never forget you, Tom.
- written by Dale Adams
Tom Lester (left) and Ken Wessel (right)
Tom and his 1933 Nash Ambassador