William O. Buettner was born in 1898 in Hoboken, N.J., the son of Oscar Buettner, who was a pest control technician. In 1912, the elder Buettner established a company called Oscar G. Buettner, Vermin Exterminator in Brooklyn, N.Y. In 1925, once Bill graduated from Dartmouth College, his father changed the name to Oscar G. Buettner and Son, Inc.
Bill, his mother and his younger sister, Dorothy, helped out their father from a young age up until Oscar Buettner’s death in 1949.
“At one time, Bill was Buettner pest control,” recalls Jim Steckel, owner of P.C. Management Services, Columbus, Ohio. “His dad got too old to work, and Bill was the technician. Now, he wasn’t as interested in that. He was trained to be a journalist, and that was really what he liked to do. This association thing, as far as he was concerned, had a lot to do with journalism, a lot of writing.”
The “association thing” Steckel refers to is the National Association of Exterminators and Fumigators (NAEF), known after 1937 as the National Pest Control Association (NPCA). Buettner pushed for such an association, worked hard to put it into place and served as its first president, from 1933-1934.
Rallying for Organization
In the early 1930s, with the Great Depression in full force, President Franklin Roosevelt was encouraging smaller businesses to organize through the National Recovery Act (NRA).
“It required that industries identify themselves, show that they had organization constitutions and, in particular, that they had a code of ethics,” explains Dr. John Osmun, former head of the department of entomology at Purdue University, West Lafayette, Ind. “So, Bill made sure that the pest control industry fell into that category very quickly. It was, therefore, endorsed by the NRA. That permitted them really to go forth and organize the association.”
Buettner had seen a need for such a professional organization firsthand in New York in the late 1920s. He was instrumental in the early days of the Society of Exterminators and Fumigators in New York City, and his marketing skills and tireless energy were soon in great demand. In 1933, he traveled throughout the Eastern United States to rally support for a national organization.
Buettner worked with several other industry movers and shakers to establish the NAEF. They held their first meeting in Washington in 1933. Fifty people were in attendance. By the following year, with the conference held in St. Louis, Mo., there were 125 attendees.
Among them was J. Harvey Sturgeon, a 26-year-old technician at the time who went on to own Sturgeon Pest Control, Louisville, Ky., as well as become the 1947-48 president of the association.
“Bill was very energetic, and he was all industry,” reflects Sturgeon. “He loved his industry, and he liked to help the people in it. There was nothing too much for him to do, as long as it was for the industry. That was his life.”
In the 1940s, Buettner did yet another great service for pest control operators (PCOs) nationwide. He traveled to Washington, D.C., to convince lawmakers that pest control was an essential industry to civilians, and should, therefore, be exempt from certain wartime restrictions.
“That’s really what kept the pest control industry going through World War II,” Osmun admonishes, “because the right people were allowed to remain in place and do their job.”
Osmun explains that if a pest control company could show that a certain person was absolutely key to the conduct of the particular company, he was given favorable consideration in regard to the draft.
In addition, adds Sturgeon, Buettner made sure that items that were under wartime ration, such as gasoline, were kept available to PCOs so they could continue with their work.
For the Love of Industry
Buettner did all this with nary a dime from industry members at the beginning. This was because, frankly, they didn’t have the money. Steckel points out that one association did have a workable arrangement, at least.
Bill had been kind of the organizer of the exterminators in the New York City area. They couldn’t pay him, they didn’t have any money, but they had an agreement among themselves that they would not bid on the fumigations,” he explains. “So, he would be the only bidder on fumigations and they would assist him in the fumigation, if it was big. They were very good about helping him get it done.”
Steckel helped out at one of these fumigations during World War II, and traveled with his father, H.K. “Doc” Steckel to New York. The job was for the Queen Mary, a large troop-carrying ship that could accommodate more than 6,000 soldiers at a time. It was infested with bedbugs, and the pest controllers had just five days to get people off the ship, seal it, fumigate it, open the seals and air it, and put another load back in.
“We all went and helped, and I remember saying something to my dad about it,” Steckel recalls. “My dad said, ‘Well, that’s kind of our contribution to Bill’s compensation. He may not get paid again for another three years.’ “
By 1946, however, Buettner became the NPCA’s full-time executive secretary and was receiving a salary.
A Family Man
For all of Buettner’s devotion to his work, he was equally devoted to his family. He married Dora Wolssner in 1925, and had a son, Billy, in 1927. Dora died in 1932, leaving Buettner to raise his son alone.
The Steckel family stepped in to help, offering to have Billy stay on their Ohio farm during the summers. Steckel recalls that Billy, whom he became close friends with, “wasn’t very big, but he was willing,” and did the farm chores agreeably.
For his part, Buettner requested that the young Steckel come back with Billy one week every summer to New York.
“I can remember him taking me to a seafood restaurant, and I wasn’t sure if I was going to like that, so I was going to do what most other kids did, and that was to get a hot dog or a hamburger or something,” Steckel laughs. “He said ‘Oh no (you don’t).’ Over a period of years, he taught me pretty much to be able to eat all kinds of foods, not just foods we had at home.
“I thought about that as we raised our kids, too, because unless they’re kind of pushed into it, eating snails is not something they relish,” he adds. “We were taught that these were things you’re gonna need as you become adults, so you need to learn. You don’t need to eat 100 of them, but you’re gonna have to eat three or four of them.”
In 1940, Buettner married Helen Roehrs, and had a second son, Teddy, in 1943. Neither son stayed in pest control very long. Bill, who passed away in 1995, took a job at the U.S. Census Bureau. Ted currently lives in Honolulu, Hawaii, and is an insurance representative.
Ted has nothing but the fondest memories of his father, as well as all the “uncles” he had in the industry. The Buettners played host to many a visiting PCO.
“Dad always had time for me,” he remembers. Ted and his mother always came along for the annual convention, a tradition Mrs. Buettner kept until her death in 1988.
One little-known fact about his father, Ted reports, is that Bill Buettner was the first Sunday School superintendent of Dr. Norman Vincent Peale. In fact, the well-known reverend kept in touch with the Buettner family, and wrote monthly letters to Ted during his two tours of duty in Vietnam.
An Industry Friend
Osmun maintains that Buettner is the man who brought him to Purdue. He first met Buettner after he left the army and was working for Merck Chemical Co. By chance, Buettner had forged a close friendship with Dr. J.J. Davis at the university, with the pair writing each other nearly every day to keep on top of industry happenings.
“When Purdue was looking for someone to start the urban pest control curriculum, Bill Buettner said, ‘I’ve got the man right here,’ ” Osmun notes. “If Bill Buettner told J.J. I was the man, then that settled it! It really did. They had great mutual respect for each other and their opinions.”
Sturgeon has a similar fondness for Buettner. When he was president of NPCA, many of the men coming home from the military had been trained to do pest control during their stint. A lot of them chose to open up a business in that trade. With such a flood of pest control businesses, the NPCA soon adapted to the change from its more selective membership to opening to everyone.
“Mr. Buettner and I tried to improve our industry, and the best way we thought to do it would be to let the department of entomology get to know us better,” Sturgeon recalls. “We took three meetings that year to Washington, and we had about seven entomologists there. We put forth our thoughts about the industry and how we could work together. That really paid off. They didn’t know us too well at that time, but they knew who we were. In those days, there were a lot of fly-by-night exterminators, and they knew about those people. What we wanted to do was convert them to our way of doing things (ethics, professionalism). I think we were helpful there.”
Buettner’s health problems plagued him through his later life. In 1951, he collapsed from heart trouble, which forced him to slow his pace, but not his determination. In 1953, though, he succumbed to complications from a gall bladder infection. The industry was shocked and saddened by the loss.
“At that time, it was probably the biggest funeral in the state of New Jersey’s history,” reports Ted Buettner. “There were about 50 cars in the procession, from Glen Ridge, N.J., to Greenwood Cemetery in New York City.”
Forty-five years later, Buettner’s colleagues still praise the man and his work.
“Bill was the dynamic first leader of the pest control industry. He’s the one who started the industry on the road to service and to greatness,” Osmun remarks. “He was unselfish, he was tireless, he had great perspective and he had a lot of personal empathy with people.”
Steckel concurs, adding, “He was a dynamic guy, he could have a big smile on his face one minute and be growling the next, he could drink with best of them, he could fight with the best of them, and he didn’t mind doing it. It appeared to him to be part of his organization job.”
From his friendship with Buettner, Sturgeon seems to sum it up best.
“He was jovial, yet he was very serious in meetings,” he reflects, “and I’m sure there wasn’t a man in the industry who didn’t like him.”