“When I was young, I dreamed that perhaps I might invent something that moved, made odd noises and might change the world as we know it. Now that I’m a father and grandfather, I’m thrilled to realize that I came a lot closer to doing that than I thought possible,” says Norm Cooper, Pest Control magazine’s 1999 Pest Control Hall of Famer.
Right from the start, Cooper had big dreams, as well as the wherewithal to make them all happen. Pest Control magazine is proud to recognize the accomplishments of a man who deserves to be honored by inducting Cooper into its esteemed Pest Control Hall of Fame.
Cooper, former president of Exterminating Services Co., Inc. (ESCO), New York, N.Y., didn’t start out with aspirations to be a pest control operator (PCO). He wanted to “set the world on fire” with a syndicated comic strip. However, he soon found out that pursuing your passion doesn’t always provide your bread and butter, so he turned to the path his father, Samuel Cooper, had taken—pest control.
Cooper admits that in those days, his biggest draw to the pest control business was that it required very little capital and a lot of hard work to get started—two things he knew he could muster. In 1954, he opened the doors of Abby Exterminating Services, and in his first month in business, he only grossed $35.
“When I get into something and believe in it, I become very passionate. I go into it completely,” he says.
Under Cooper’s direction, Abby Exterminating continued to grow, and in January 1971, he sold it to ESCO, which at the time was a division of Warner Communications. Cooper joined ESCO as vice president, and one year later, he became president of the entire exterminating services division. He stayed there until his retirement in 1996, after 25 years of service.
From Then to Now
Cooper remembers that when he started in this industry, pest controllers didn’t have a whole lot of pride about their work. Companies were promoting themselves as having “secret formulas.” Very often, their “pesticides” were homemade potions, and there were virtually no regulations for their use. Cooper believed this attitude could change.
“In those days, I saw that the future held professionalism for PCOs. I thought that we would be regulated someday, and it occurred.”
He guided his own technicians with the premise that “If you’re not going to be the best, then leave, because we’re going to do whatever it takes to be the best.”
That attitude became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Cooper admits that his own attitude needed adjusting in the beginning. Then he attended his first National Pest Control Association (NPCA) convention.
“When I attended the convention, it was as though a curtain opened. I saw the exchange of information,” he relates. “Not just technical information, but how to get more business, and how to build your company, from other PCOs.
“I saw a very giving attitude. People like J.C. Redd and John Cook were telling us the ‘secrets’ of how they did it. I was in awe,” Cooper remembers.
He believes that public and government perception of the pest control industry was actually higher than how pest controllers perceived themselves. For him, that first NPCA meeting changed his own outlook of himself as a PCO, and he began to look forward to the possibilities. To this day, he continues to be positive about what’s coming for the pest control industry.
“In the future, I believe that pest control will be highly revered,” he predicts.
Today, Cooper sees the industry as being “recognized by government officials, the public, and lastly, by our own industry, as a professional public health service that provides beneficial results to people.”
Cooper submerged himself in the NPCA. He was a regional director for more than 10 years, as well as serving in every office except secretary, before becoming the 1991-92 president. He developed “Guardians of the Environment” as his theme during his presidential term. He drew on his art background to design the logo himself. NPCA members were so pleased with how Guardians of the Environment represented the association that they decided to adopt it as the association’s official logo in 1993.
For Cooper, Guardians of the Environment was more than just a catchy phrase to keep PCOs out of hot water at a time when “environmentalists” were really turning up the heat—he believed in it. He was on the front lines facing the mainstream media during the chlordane crisis, and refused to put the industry in the position of fighting against environmentalist groups.
He was representing the industry in a professional and positive light, but during legislative hearings about chlordane, the perception was that the pest control industry was attacking the environmentalists. During TV interviews, Cooper made sure that the public knew that “We have done more to help the environment than most of these people who call themselves environmentalists. They mean well, but we have saved lives, we have protected health and property, and we have done things to benefit the environment.”
During his NPCA convention speech in 1992, Cooper told a crowd of about 1,400 people to stand up for the industry.
“When you go to a meeting and some anti-pesticide proponent claims to be an environmentalist, then I want you stand up and interrupt them and say, ‘We are environmentalists.’ Don’t accept that they are and we’re not.”
Cooper believes that Guardians of the Environment helped change our own perception of the industry because it “reinforces the attitude that what we do is vital, important and beneficial.
“Today, at a cocktail party the two groups that get asked the most questions are doctors and pest control operators. People will say, ‘I’ve got ants, what do I do about them?’ We’re not ashamed anymore of what we do,” he asserts.
In addition to the NPCA, Cooper was also a member of the Professional Exterminators Association (PEA), an association for PCOs in New York City. He was also actively involved in forming the New York State Pest Control Association (NYSPCA), along with Harry Linondoll and Bernie Herman. For 15 years, he was on the board of trustees of the Exterminating Industry Institute, a union for pest control employees.
Cooper not only served the industry domestically, but was also involved internationally by speaking on the industry’s behalf in countries such as Japan, Mexico, Canada, Brazil, the United Kingdom, Israel, Singapore, China and Ecuador.
“I’ve given presentations all over the world, and I’ve learned more than I’ve taught,” he relates.
Cooper believes that it would not be unrealistic for him to go to a country where he doesn’t know anyone, pick a PCO out of the telephone book, call them and make a new friend. One of his favorite phrases is “I have friends throughout the world, many of whom I haven’t met yet.”
His Human Side
In 1986, during the Cold War, Cooper and his wife, Marilyn, took a very special trip. They received a travel brochure to visit the Soviet Union and decided it would be interesting. They realized, however, that they would be traveling to a place where the Jewish people were still oppressed, and wondered if there was some way they could offer assistance.
The Coopers contacted the Coalition to Free Soviet Jews, based in New York City. They were taught what to say and not to say, where to go and not go and whom they could talk to safely. They experienced an unbelievable journey of secret meetings and coded communications.
Fortunately, they were able to meet Russian Entomologists Drs. Igor and Inna Uspensky. Both were tick experts in the Soviet Union who had been targeted by Soviet officials and were active “refuseniks.” Their doctorates had been invalidated and their research findings expunged. The Coopers spent many years working to get them out of Russia. Currently, the Uspenskys are both working in their field in Israel.
Realizing that there are many more people like the Uspenskys that need help, Cooper says it can be frustrating.
“On one hand, you feel a great sense of accomplishment, but that’s balanced by the thoughts of the people whom you couldn’t touch and what more you might have done,” he relates.
Upon achieving this great personal accomplishment, it’s not surprising that Cooper was the recipient of the first NPCA Humanitarian Award in 1990.
While Cooper has undoubtedly touched numerous people both personally and professionally, he can’t pick one individual to call the most influential in his own career. Instead, he gives credit to several people, including Paul Adams, Lee Truman, Vern McKinzie and Larry Treleven. However, he considers Joe Harris of Harris Exterminating, to be his mentor.
“Joe Harris was a tireless guy. You could call him any hour of the day or night, and I mean that literally. I thought he was so generous and helpful with his time, and after he passed away, I found out that he was just as generous to others,” Cooper asserts. “I was amazed that he had the time to help so many people.”
Cooper has also acquired many close friends during his pest control career, including Bob and Judy Dold, Bill and Joan Spitz, Mark and Bobbie Weisburger, Jim and Sue Ogle, Harold and Vera Stein, Bob Kunst, Bob Taylor and countless others.
Cooper had hopes of changing the world, and luckily for the pest control industry, it can be said that he made contributions far beyond even his own wildest dreams.