Good thing for the pest control industry that Dr. Philip Spear didn’t take his mother’s career advice.
In the 1930s, Spear’s mother sent him to college, “so I could become a minister,” he says. That didn’t appeal to Spear, so his mother, “said she would settle for me becoming a physician,” he says.
That wasn’t in the cards either. What captured the attention of the Massachusetts-born self-proclaimed farm boy was entomology.
His love for insects would grow as Spear got involved in termite control and pesticide research on both coasts, finally leading him to the National Pest Control Association (NPCA), where he would contribute in a technical capacity for more than 25 years.
When he retired in 1980, Spear had formed a strong technical foundation for the industry, forged relationships between the association and the regulatory agencies and earned a host of friends who valued his dedication to their livelihood.
Born in Springfield, Mass., Spear earned his bachelor’s degree in entomology in 1937 and started working as an insecticide salesman in New England.
Then Mother Nature intervened.
“In 1938, a hurricane blew down the fruit trees in the Northeast, so I had to look for different work,” Spear says.
Back in college, Spear had met a pest management professional who specialized in termite work in California. Spear contacted him, accepted a job and worked on the West Coast from 1938 to 1943.
Next came an intervention of a different sort — World War II. Spear went through officers’ candidate school and became company commander of a harbor craft. He was part of the first company in on D-Day as part of a supply operation for American and British landing forces.
“After the war, I went back to California and worked in termite control for another two years. I came to a point where I had to make a decision,” he says.
Spear returned to Massachusetts and entered graduate school under the G.I. Bill. During this period, Spear had an industrial fellowship doing research on household pests, and he served in the Army Reserves as an entomologist with a research-and-development group of the Medical Corps. He received his Ph.D in 1953.
Right Time, Right Place
The year 1954 was a transition year for the relatively new NPCA. Founder William Buettner died a few months before, and Technical Director Dr. Ralph Heal moved up to the executive secretary position, leaving the technical directorship open.
Spear was in the right place at the right time. “Since I had some connections on the West Coast in the termite industry and connections on the East Coast with my research, I had a leg up on the job. It was perfect for me,” he says.
“Ralph Heal was a great mentor to me as I started in the association,” Spear says. In those days, the association comprised only a few people. “Just to indicate how small we were,” Spear says, “someone would find out in the morning that a message had to go out to our members, and by the end of the day, the entire staff was sitting around a big table assembling pieces, stapling and licking envelopes.”
It was here at the NPCA where Spear’s technical reputation would form. Heal had established a series of association technical releases known as “green papers,” named after the color paper on which they were printed. In his new position, Spear was responsible for creating the green papers that would become industry benchmarks.
“We covered our subjects, whether it was the biology of an insect or a comparison of different chemicals, when we first heard about them,” he says. “During the post-war period we had a great influx of new pesticides. Resistance started developing. As some pesticides failed, others came along. These technical releases became important for members.”
Spear’s involvement with the releases opened lines of communication between the industry and state and local governments, research universities and suppliers. “I was in an interesting position,” he says. “Chemical suppliers would have the understanding that I might write about something that would have considerable influence on their business.”
The NPCA released about 25 green sheets annually. Green became Spear’s trademark in other ways as well. Spear’s longtime friend and colleague Vern McKinzie, retired founder of Kansas’ McKinzie Pest Control and past NPMA president, says, “All of his handwritten correspondence was in green ink.”
Spear says that’s because Heal already used black ink, so he picked a color to correspond with the green sheets.
Spear’s work on the technical papers led the association to initiate independent research programs. Under Spear’s watch, the NPCA developed a research program that raised money to fund research at universities that would conduct product testing.
This research legacy continues at the National Pest Management Association. Its Pest Management Foundation, established for more than 30 years, includes a fund in Spear’s name that underwrites industry research.
A New Age
During the turning-point period of the early 1970s, Spear took on the role of educator at the association as he worked with regulatory agencies trying to establish new pesticide use laws and guidelines.
“We had new laws coming out and lawyers fresh out of law school writing regulations that were totally improper for the worker in the field,” Spear says.
Regulatory agencies also needed to establish definitions and parameters for pesticide laws, and Spear lent expertise there as well. His help in defining terms like crack and crevice and spot treatment led to his next big move — Washington.
In the early 1970s, the association sent Spear to the nation’s capital to establish an office in the heart of the growing regulatory activity. Now with the title of senior director, research, Spear acted as lobbyist in Washington on behalf of the industry. He met regularly with legislators and lawmakers to clarify the pest industry’s position and lend expertise.
As the industry grew, the association gained more staff. Spear filled in two terms as acting executive director, for six months in 1976-1977 and for nine months in 1977-1978.
Upon retirement in 1980, Spear and his wife Hazel moved to Florida, where Spear became involved with Florida’s associations and research universities. At his 90th birthday party last month, the entire Spear family was together: Sons Phil Jr. and Brian and daughter Laurel, along with three of Spear’s five grandchildren, reunited for the celebration.
The milestone birthday didn’t pass without good wishes from Spear’s industry colleagues. McKinzie called to say happy birthday to the man he calls “an icon of the industry.”
“I would have never had the opportunity or courage to go through the ranks had it not been for a guy like Phil Spear,” McKinzie says.