March 20, 2019IMLAY CITY — The Maple Vista independent living facility in Imlay City has been home to many successful and notable individuals over the years.
But to the knowledge of current staff, none of them has held a patent on a product approved by the U.S. Patent Office.
That honor belongs solely to Rodney "Rod" Charbeneau, who took up residence at Maple Vista in early February.
Charbeneau, now 87, recalled it was in February 1988, that he received patent-pending status on his "Five Star Pet Express;" a product he designed to accommodate easy transport of an animal.
Inspired by his own dog, a Yorkie named "Porsha," Charbeneau describes his invention as simply "a cage, wheels and a handle."
When the cage is used alone, he says, a single animal can be transported in the traditional manner.
When modified, the device can easily be transformed into a wheeled cart to take the animal out in public—sans leash.
Imlay City resident Rod Charbeneau with official patent he received for his pet carrier invention.
The U.S. Patent Office apparently saw the value in Charbeneau's product, and on Jan. 10, 1989, elevated his original creation to full patent status.
From the beginning
Born in 1932 in Mount Clemens, Michigan, Charbeneau's childhood was uniquely imbued with creativity, independent thought and an entrepreneurial spirit.
"I was one of those crazy kids," Charbeneau admits. "I probably started building things when I was about 12 or 13 years old.
"I used to have a couple goats that I'd milk and sell the milk to people," he says. "I decided to turn my wagon into a cart that the goats could pull me around in. I guess I was the only kid in town that had his own pony."
Charbeneau attended St. Mary's Catholic School in Mount Clemens, but he withdrew in the 11th grade to do carpentry work with his older brother.
Restless and industrious by nature, he quickly transitioned from carpentry to leasing his own gas station in Mount Clemens.
"I was probably around 20 or 21 years old at the time," he recalls. "I was always independent and I liked to do things on my own."
He would eventually marry his former wife, Diane, and they had six children—three boys and three girls.
After moving the family to Imlay City in the mid-1960s, Charbeneau hauled milk locally for Michigan Milk Producers and Twin Pines Dairy.
For a time, he operated a dairy farm equipment shop near the northeast corner of M-53 and M-21, on property owned by Joe Shull.
And in 1988, while employed as a driver for the Durable Fence Company, Charbeneau and family moved to Grand Prairie, Texas.
It was there he met a fellow inventor who had patented numerous products in the past.
"I was lucky to run into him," he recalls. "He put me on to his patent attorney, who was an ex-employee at the U.S. Patent Office."
That meeting would eventually lead to Charbeneau's applying for and receiving a patent on his Five Star Pet Express.
"I took it to a trade show in Florida and they paid me $250 for two of them. I had over 250 of them made in 1994 and 1995."
Creativity a family trait
Rod points out that he is not the only Charbeneau with a proclivity for creativity and invention.
He alludes to his younger brother, Hank, and his uncle, Clarence, as having ventured into the creative realm during their respective careers.
"Hank was an engineer and he was in charge of the engine cell department at the old tank plant," he remembers. "They had to send him overseas to check out and fix problems they were having with the tanks over there.
"It was my Uncle Clarence who came up with the gold leaf lettering process," Rod says. "He had the idea to make the gold leaf powder stick to the material with shellac, and swirling it with a brush to make it look beautiful," he said. "I think he designed it and had the patent on it. Then others picked up on it."
Though he says he cannot prove it, Charbeneau believes he may have played a role in the U.S. Army installing 'safety lights' in their Sherman tanks.
"I went with a girl whose dad was a big wheel at the Chrysler Tank Plant," Charbeneau recalls. "He told me that the tanks over in Korea kept banging into one another.
"I told him what they needed was not just the (red) stop lights at the rear of the tank, but amber lights for caution and green lights to show when the tanks were accelerating."
Though new ideas don't come to him as frequently as in the past, Charbeneau still likes to contemplate and imagine the possibilities.
Sometimes he even conjures up an idea for yet another new invention; including one he hesitates to reveal at present.
"Right now, I have a system in the works that I think most police departments would love to have," he says. "But I would need someone with some credibility to present the idea."
Until then, Charbeneau continues to acclimate himself to his new surroundings and neighbors at Maple Vista.
He also continues to work part-time for his youngest son, Doug Charbeneau, at Southern Truck Equipment.
His job duties include running errands, doing odd jobs, cleaning up around the office and picking up and delivering parts.
Tom Wearing started at the Tri-City Times in 1989, covering the Village of Capac as a beat reporter. He later served stints as assistant editor and editor. Today, he covers Imlay City and Almont as a staff writer. He enjoys music and plays drums and sings with various musical groups in the Detroit Metropolitan area.