ENFIELD, Conn. -- One of the world's top 10 toymakers gets about 7,500 letters a year from children, and Susan Williams answers them all for the company, LEGO Systems Inc.
The firm's construction toys enable children to expand their creativity and some of them carry on extensive correspondence with Susan Williams as they progress from pre-school to teen-ager in tandem with the age range for the toys. Some send her Valentine day cards. Some ask for her photograph.
'That's when our creativity is really tested,' laughed Lois Ritchotte, one of a half-dozen in the consumer services department using the pen name 'Susan Williams'. Actually, she simply admits to the fiction if the question arises.
The bulk of 30,000 letters each year come from apparently pleased parents like Mary Carroll of Sarasota, Fla., whose son, Joe, 10, has been a LEGO toy fan since he was 2. Joe wrote a poem of sorts. It began:
'LEGO, LEGO, building blocks,
'You're more exciting than Fort Knox ...'
Gary Coleman, the moppet star of television's 'Different Strokes,' is another LEGO correspondent, and evidently into the cosmic. He ordered a 'Star Fleet Voyager,' a 'Galaxy Explorer,' an 'All-Terrain Vehicle' and a 'Space Command Center.'
'Your ideas are unbelievable,' he said in a glowing note. It was accompanied by a cover letter from his Los Angeles business manager, Anita De Thomas, and a check for $65. Gary signed himself, 'A Sincere Customer.'
'What sets us apart from the industry is that we answer each and every one of the letters,' says the company's Michael Strammiello. 'It may seem basic, but however trivial some questions might be, we take them all to heart.'
He said the plastic building blocks are so durable that they are handed down from generation to generation.
'We're still servicing sets sold in the 1950s,' he said.
Kids and adults, some of them senior citizens, build all sorts of things with them. A boy in North Ridge, Calif., built a three-masted schooner without instructions. Another in Beaverton, Ore., built a cobra. 'Mr. Goldberg from Chicago' built what looked like a Roman temple. A youngster named Mike Roek of Mt. Clemens, Mich., fashioned a replica of the Taj Mahal.
'There is no other construction toy that you could do that with,' Strammiello said, referring to the Taj Mahal. It's not the number of blocks, but the variety of elements. We have 2,000.'
'Take this ship,' Strammiello said. 'You could make it into a submarine, put it in your room -- or make a giraffe out of it.'
Not only do kids make toys with the LEGO building components, they collect them the way adults do other things. Strammiello told of attending a meeting in Chicago where a youngster appeared with thousands of parts in a garbage can.
'There are some heavy-duty collectors,' he said.
Worldwide, the company produces 3 billion building blocks a year. The production line worry is that a kit will be a component short. To offset the possibility, the kits are weighed at least twice.
LEGO building blocks are a system of colorful building components that are precision tooled so they snap firmly together. A child can build a different toy every day. It may be a plane, a windmill, a train, in the earlier stages, or something that nobody else has ever seen before. Those are marketed under the company's Duplo brand.
Vice President Richard Garvey suggests it's not a good idea for parents to ask the younger children, 'What is it?' when a child shows them a creation. 'Ask all around the question and let the child tell you,' he said.
As they grow older children can assemble things tailored to their age group. In the 6-12 age group, for example, they put together police and fire headquarters that with similar items make up an entire town. In the 'expert builder' category, there are movable parts like a tractor, fork lift, motorcycle, and even an automobile engine.
Garvey said the children's use of their own creativity will help teach them how to think, how to use their imagination so that they will be able to deal with the information glut as they grow older.
'Contrast that to an electronic game. What that does other than entertain, I don't know. But it's not expanding a child's mind,' he said.
'They (the blocks) appeal to the engineer in all of us. Eli Whitney, the inventor, should have had these toys. They're the ultimate in challenge,' Strammiello said.
The founder of the family owned and consumer-oriented company, which has headquarters in Billund, Denmark, and offices in 125 countries, is Ole Kirk Christensen, a real-life Geppetto.
He was an unemployed carpenter who began experimenting with wooden toys in the 1930s. The brand name 'LEGO' was derived from the Danish 'leg godt,' which means 'play well'.
The firm's American headquarters with 350 employes for processing and distribution was built on an 87-acre site in this community in 1975 with a noticeable difference -- no reserved parking spaces for executives. It's first come, first serve for everybody.
The Enfield site was chosen because it is near Boston and New York, import points for component shipments from LEGO's European facilities.
The region's cold weather also was a factor in its locating in New England. The company expects to add a molding plant to make its own components rather than have them shipped in. It will use the intense heat from the molding operation to help heat the rest of the 300,000-square foot building.