Hi-Lite of a lifetime

Francis Honn ’42 helped people know what’s important through inventing the Hi-Liter

By Jacob Hirschmann ’16

Francis Honn’s ’42 time at John Carroll wasn’t like most students who pass through University Heights. But that didn’t stop him from moving forward and creating the “hi-lite” of a lifetime.

Honn’s final year at John Carroll was interrupted by the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. As a result, the United States entered World War II, and thousands of men volunteered to fight, including many John Carroll students. One of Honn’s most vivid memories from his time at Carroll is of the men in his class signing up to volunteer for the war before a draft was even instituted.

“Within 24 hours of the bombing, there were hundreds of students lined up at the recruiting office,” he says. “It really made a big difference in the atmosphere on campus.”

However, Honn was only 20 when the U.S. enacted the draft, which allowed him to avoid being drafted. So after he graduated, he looked for a job. For three years, he worked in research labs at General Cable Corp., where he developed products to be used in the war. He then worked at the Mellon Institute of Industrial Research, where he was named a fellow and served on numerous projects.

Honn

Honn

In 1950, Honn left the Mellon Institute and joined M.W. Kellogg, where he worked for seven years. During that time, the company was acquired by 3M, an American multinational conglomerate corporation based in Maplewood, Minnesota. After serving as a technical director for a short time, Honn was hired in 1959 as vice president of technology by Carter’s Ink, where he invented something almost everybody has used in their lifetime – the Hi-Liter.

Before his arrival at Carter’s Ink, the company had just released a line of permanent markers called Marks-a-Lot. They were a huge hit with parents and children, but consumers weren’t pleased with the fact they were permanent. Mothers and fathers wrote to Carter’s Ink asking the company to make an alternative marker that could be washed off. The company responded, releasing a nonpermanent alternative in multiple colors called Draws-a-Lot. While these markers were more popular than the Marks-a-Lot markers, Honn continued to test his own combinations of colors and chemicals. One day, he ran a yellow, water-based marker over black type on a page and was amazed at the results.

“The colors literally jumped off the page,” he says.

Honn realized the black and yellow contrasted more vividly. As a test to see just how close he had come to a popular product, Honn asked the customer service department to highlight a few key words in letters they sent out to customers with his yellow marker. At the bottom of the letter, customer service included the phrase “Wonder where that yellow came from? Carter’s Reading Hi-Liter.”

The customers loved it. During the next few days, the company received an influx of phone calls and letters asking about the Hi-Liter. Honn presented company executives with responses, and they agreed it was a good product to test in the market. The results were overwhelmingly positive, as orders came pouring in. Carter’s Reading Hi-Liter was officially on the market.

To this day, Honn is proud of his unexpected creation.

“The fact that something so simple could still have such an impact today makes me happy,” he says.

After the yellow Hi-Liter, a pink one was put on the market. Soon after that, colors such as blue and orange were added. As of 2012, the yellow and pink Hi-Liter accounted for 85 percent of highlighter sales according to The New York Times. To Honn, that’s not surprising because the original yellow was always his favorite.

“The yellow-to-black contrast was unmatched,” he says.

Yet, even with all the contributions Honn made to Carter’s Ink, he left the company in 1963 to assume the role of vice president of commercial development at Olin in Stamford, Connecticut, but even then, he wasn’t done moving. After working in Stamford for nine years, Honn moved to Morristown, New Jersey to work for The Mennen Co. briefly. From there, he accepted a position with BASF in Wyandotte, Michigan, where he worked for 12 years.

After a quick stop at Henkel Corp., Honn settled down in 1986, when he accepted the role of advisor to senior management at Multi-Market Development, where he worked until 2003. In 1988, Honn was named the Alfred E. Driscoll Professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck, New Jersey, where he taught until 2003.

Today, Honn still keeps busy as chairman of the finance committee of the Organization of Residents Associations of New Jersey.

“I’m 94, but I’m still active,” he says. “I think some of my friends died of boredom, but I’m so busy, I don’t know what to do. You have to stay active in your old age, or you’ll fade away.” JCU


2 Comments


  1. I am thrilled that Frank is still with us. I met him when we were both active in the Commercial Development Assn. He was (besides a fellow JCU alum) one of the finest gentleman I’ve ever met. He was role model to many in that organization.
    Paul McSweeny

  2. What an interesting article! Very well-researched and well-written. Kudos to the author!

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