DAVID STONE | OUR TOWN TEMPLE
LEGO bricks are possibly the most popular toy of all time, but not everyone begins their rectangular journey as a child. Robert Rodriquez Jr., for instance, was approaching 50 when his passion for the plastic building blocks surfaced.
“Yeah, I was an adult,” he said with a laugh. “I started in 2014.”
Rodriquez, a 1984 graduate of Temple High and a former tennis player at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor, was playing singles with a friend when a casual conversation turned to favorite toys.
“We were both fans of Star Wars movies, and he started talking about the new LEGO kit and said Target had the Imperial Walker model in stock. I never really thought LEGO’s Star Wars kits were very realistic looking, but I went to Target and bought a couple. I was hooked.”
Rodriquez comes from a military family — his dad was in the Army and his step-father was a Navy man — and soon he had the urge to build tanks, planes and Jeeps. As policy, LEGO doesn’t make military-related models, so the Temple man looked elsewhere to quench his LEGO thirst. That search led to a third-party manufacturer who used LEGO parts to create their own products.
“Brickmania, a company out of Minnesota, makes military models with LEGO bricks, but their kits aren’t official LEGO products,” Rodriquez said. “They had a wide range of military vehicles, but their models were super expensive so I decided to create my own.”
Rodriquez has designed and built C-130 transport planes, tanks, jeeps, Humvees, armored vehicles — you name it. He also built a pair of mosaics to honor his dad and step-father.
Eventually, his creations grew in scope and in size. What started out as a hobby building models of tanks and planes turned into giant buildings such as skyscrapers, ball parks, hotels and other cityscapes. Buildings are designed in 20-inch by 20-inch sections and can be put together to create an entire city.
“Usually, when I set up a city at a convention, it’s about 5-foot square,” he said. “I had one that had buildings and the baseball stadium, plus a marina, apartment complexes, a Naval base and an elevated-train system for commuters.”
“When I build a baseball stadium, it’s just generic,” he said. “But I use elements of favorite stadiums such as The Ballpark at Arlington. I like to build my ballparks with an old-school feel.”
Rodriquez has earned his share of accolades at annual LEGO conventions such as Brickfiesta, which is now called Brick Rodeo.
Rodriquez, who co-owns Maribel’s Florist & Flower Boutique along with his wife, Monica, has won awards for Best Military, Best Micro-scale, Best Architecture and Best Use of a Brick Rodeo logo. The awards come with trophies, which are made of LEGO bricks, of course.
“One year I won a Bright Idea award, and it was a lightbulb made of LEGO bricks,” he said. “I’m planning my design for Brick Rodeo 2023. It’s going to be a campground complete with a river, waterfall, camping vehicles, a forest and a mountain backdrop. It will be about 45-inches square and built in sections so it is easy to move.”
The project will be built out of LEGO bricks he has previously used in other designs.
“LEGO bricks are very expensive,” he said. “So I take a lot of photos of a project, then tear it down to use bricks in other creations.”
Rodriguez said future projects likely will include Temple landmarks such as the Kyle Hotel, the Municipal Building (city hall) and the old post office/library.
“I really want to build the Kyle,” he said. “I plan on taking photos to use as a guide. It probably will be about 5-feet tall. I’ll have a scene around it with vehicles and people walking on the sidewalk.”
While Robert has been building with the colorful bricks for about eight years, the LEGO university exploded during the COVID-19 pandemic.
People in Temple and around the world had a lot of “me” time during the pandemic because of isolations. Some folks turned to online classes to pass the time, others started new businesses. And some — millions, actually — got into LEGO.
“Online sales went through the roof,” said company spokesperson Jennifer MacDonald. “Adults were overwhelmed by pandemic-related stress, and many dreamed of escaping everyday life. LEGO provides that distraction.”
According to MacDonald, LEGO bricks are now more popular than ever, and adults and “kidults” (children between 12 and 18) are the fastest growing LEGO-loving populations.
“LEGO, the world’s largest toymaker, continues to zero in on a growing demographic — stressed-out adults,” MacDonald said. The 88-year-old Danish company now bills its brightly colored bricks as a way “to drown out the noise of the day and achieve a measure of mindfulness.”
The company’s most popular kits include the Central Perk cafe from ‘Friends’ and a vintage 1989 Batmobile. Cool stuff!
According to MacDonald, 54 percent of adults today admit that stress disrupts key aspects of their life — sleep or mood, for instance — at least weekly.
“People struggle to relax,” she said. “Unwinding can be hard. About 72 percent of adults engage in play time to help destress and relax. Surprisingly, 61 percent are turning to board games and LEGO play to destress. That’s more than yoga.”