Uncle Milton Ant Farm Co-Inventor Dies At 97

Milton Levine, the novelty toy entrepreneur who dreamed up the hugely popular ant farm, has died at the age of 97. Uncle Milton's Ant Farm has sold more than 20 million copies. Host Melissa Block speaks to Levine's son, Steven.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

If you happen and enjoy one of the more than 20 million ant farms sold over the past 50-some-odd years, give thanks to Milton Levine. He was the novelty toy entrepreneur who dreamed up the hugely popular Ant Farm. Milton Levine died last week in California. He was 97. He liked to joke about just how powerful ants proved to be.

Mr. MILTON LEVINE (Co-Inventor, Ant Farm): That's something I'll never do. I'll never step on an ant. Put three of my kids through college.

BLOCK: Put three of his kids through college, one of them, Steven Levine, who ran the family business when his father retired. Steven, welcome to the program. I'm very sorry to hear about your loss.

Mr. STEVEN LEVINE (President, Uncle Milton Industries Inc.): Well, thank you. I appreciate it.

BLOCK: Tell me a bit more about your dad. I've read that he served in Army in World War II, came home and started a toy company. Why? What was his inspiration?

Mr. S. LEVINE: Well, at the time, hundreds of thousands of GIs were coming home, wondering what to do and what kind of work to get into. And he had read that there was a coming baby boom, obviously, so he figured that the toys and novelties would be a good field to get into.

BLOCK: And then by 1956, he gets the idea for an ant farm. How did he get the idea?

Mr. S. LEVINE: Ant Farm, which is a name they cooked up, it's actually a registered trademark, the generic name for that is a formicarium, which is a little thing to watch ants do their thing. And those, they had wood and glass ones for years and years that you would see in a classroom or a museum.

Their idea was to mass produce these things out of plastic and put a little farm scene in there and then mail the live ants to the customer. And that was really what their innovation was and it became an instant success, and sort of a fad during the late '50s, early '60s.

BLOCK: And why do you think it's been so successful all these years?

Mr. S. LEVINE: I think people just are fascinated by watching the ants. I mean, it's a really cool thing to watch. Ants instinctively build their nests, their tunnels underground. Grain by grain, they demonstrate industriousness, perseverance, teamwork and so forth. So it's a real learning experience but it's just a fascinating thing to watch.

BLOCK: What lessons did your father leave with you for either how to run a business or maybe just lessons to guide you through life?

Mr. S. LEVINE: I worked in the business for 32 years. I started in 1978 and he was my boss, too. And he was, you know, he was a pretty tough boss. But he taught me to work long hours until you get the job done. Work smart. Hire people who know how to do their jobs better than you do. And persevere and don't give up.

BLOCK: Kind of like an ant.

Mr. S. LEVINE: Exactly. He followed the ants. He sold ants, watched ants and that's the way he lived his life.

BLOCK: Well, Steven, thanks for remembering your dad with us today.

Mr. S. LEVINE: My pleasure.

BLOCK: That's Steven Levine remembering his father, Milton Levine, the creator of the Ant Farm. Milton Levine died last week in California at age 97.

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