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Through These Halls: Gerry Thomas

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At one time, sitting on your couch and eating in front of the TV was a radical idea

Office of University Communications - Craig Chandler

There are some brand names so ubiquitous that they become the common name for an object. If you need facial tissue, you ask for a Kleenex. If you need a cotton swab, you ask for a Q-tip.

If you want a pre-portioned frozen meal, you ask for a TV dinner.

And you can get one, thanks to a 1948 Nebraska grad. Gerry Thomas was part of the sales staff for Swanson’s (Omaha) in 1954 when he came up with the concept for the TV dinner. The first meals were packaged in foil plates and baked in the oven. The TV dinner later evolved to include microwaveable packaging.

I snipped the photo below from the 1948 Cornhusker yearbook - these are some of the senior business administration students. If I got them right, Gerry Thomas is the picture in the lower right corner.

There were other prepacked frozen meals before the TV dinner, but Swanson’s version experienced the greatest commercial success. Ten million TV dinners were sold in the first year of production (Source).

I bet most of you can describe the TV tray set in your parents’ or grandparents’ house. My parents had some that were plain brown on the surface with brass-colored aluminum edges and hollow aluminum legs that were most definitely not strong enough to support even the weight of a young child who tried to use them as support when standing up.

Related: My parents only had three TV trays instead of the usual four.

The origin story of the TV dinner is not without controversy. Some of the Swanson family have claimed that the idea came from one of the Swanson brothers and not Thomas. Regardless of the origins of the idea, Thomas is widely believed to have had significant influence on the overall concept and success of the product.

Thomas died in 2005 in Arizona at the age of 83. He and his wife Susan were parents to seven children. (No wonder an idea about convenience food came to him!)

So, the next time you Netflix and chill, raise a glass in the direction of Lincoln. And tell Mom (again) that you don’t want that old TV tray set from her basement.

Next week on “Through These Halls”. How well do you remember the Cuban Missile Crisis?