Editor’s Note: The PMP staff is saddened to report that Vern passed away Jan. 25, 2015. He was 86. Learn more here.
Grass doesn’t have a chance to grow under 2001 Pest Control Hall of Fame Inductee Vern Walter’s feet. Throughout his life, he has traipsed through the pest management industry trying new locations and serving in a variety of positions, while touching other pest management professionals (PMPs) along the way.
The San Antonio, Texas, native is currently the president of WAW, Inc., a consulting service in Leakey, Texas, but the path he took to get there is full of zigs and zags.
“Both of my parents had biology degrees, and were always trying to show me things that I should have listened to more closely,” Walter recalls. “For example, if they saw an interesting tree along the side of the road, they’d stop and go over and examine the leaves and the bark, and then go get some book that they brought with them to learn the kind of tree.”
In 1936, nine-year-old Walter and his family moved to West Lafayette, Ind.-home of Purdue University. It was there that Walter’s father became friends with J.J. Davis, then head of the entomology department at Purdue, and also a 2000 Pest Control magazine Pest Control Hall of Fame inductee.
“J.J. Davis was my dad’s friend, so I grew up knowing him,” Walter recalls. “They would be having coffee, and I’d sit with them and listen to them talk.”
Later, Davis became one of Walter’s mentors at school, but first an interest in entomology had to be acquired. While Walter admits that he was bored at the time, he now recognizes his admiration for his parents and their attempts to show him the world of science.
“I probably absorbed a lot of that ‘education’ without even knowing it,” he muses.
In high school, Walter spent half of the school day working in the labs at Purdue. He was responsible for all the rodent facilities at the university. His time was spent cleaning cages and feeding lab rodents. On some small experiments, he was even allowed to serve as the anesthesiologist. For all this, he was paid 35 cents an hour. He notes getting bitten a few times, but still says, “the work was fascinating.”
From Boy to Man
Something must have paid off in those roadside stops to look at nature because, after skipping a few grades, Walter began his college career at the age of 16. Even though he knew his way around the halls of Purdue, Walter wanted to see something different. So, he headed to Ames, Iowa, where he attended Iowa State University.
Walter’s experience with pesticide work began while he was still attending college. During the summer of 1949, he worked for Del Monte, conducting the first field tests of parathion. As a result, he had long, continuous exposure to organophosphates (OPs). Walter reports having to regularly give blood samples to the government for testing until just a few years ago.
Walter graduated in 1950, which is the same year as Purdue’s first class of structural pest management. At the time, Purdue was split into two groups – those focusing on entomology and those specializing in structural pest management.
Walter zeroed in on entomology, but studied with those in the structural segment, including Bill Brehm (a 1998 inductee) and George Gilmore, the co-inventors of the now-famous B&G compressed air sprayer, as well as Clayton Wright (a 2000 inductee), Harlan Shuyler and Clifford Weiss.
After college, Walter worked a short stint as an insecticide salesman, but quickly moved on to DCA Foods in Noblesville, Ind., as a cereal chemist. He analyzed the ingredients to make sure they met all the prescribed specifications, and then also did an analysis of the finished product. He was only there one year before the plant closed, and Walter was on the move again.
He landed a position with Pest Control Services in Indianapolis, Ind., owned by Dr. Lee Truman. He started as a serviceman and eventually became the service manager. It’s here, with Truman, that Walter gained “incredible knowledge and experience.”
“Working with Lee provided experience that one could not get elsewhere,” Walter intones. “He was teaching us crack and crevice treatment long before it was a coined phrase. We started out using dust, but when chlordane became available, we applied it into the cracks and crevices just as we had been doing with the dust.”
In addition to his father and Truman, Walter says he considers Dr. Phil Spear, former technical director of the National Pest Management Association (NPMA), to be an influence on his life and career. Walter met Spear while working for Truman because “any friend of Lee’s immediately became a friend of yours.
“Phil always challenged you to produce something more that would be worthwhile to the industry,” adds Walter. “He knows how to get the best out of you.”
A Rolling Stone
While Walter valued his experience at Pest Control Services, he decided it was time to stretch his wings. More lessons were on the way.
When Walter bought a Terminix branch in Harlingen, Texas, he found out that buying a company in a strange town isn’t a wise move for a PMP who is trying to make a living. Before his arrival there, the Air Force base in town had closed, the cotton crop had failed, the citrus had frozen and the company had already lost money for five successive years, “but I thought I could still pull it off in this depressed little town.”
He made his living with this branch for 10 years, and then sold the company for three times what he paid for it.
Next, Walter served as chairman of the structural Pest Control Board of Texas and was given license No. 1, which he jokes “makes it easy to remember.” However, he didn’t stay in Texas long-he was offered a position as the technical director at Memphis, Tenn.-based Terminix, and soon moved to the Volunteer State.
As circumstances would have it, Walter’s wife Margerie was not particularly fond of Memphis. She wanted to go back to Texas. So, Walter soon packed his bags, and was on the road to McAllen, Texas. He went to work for Olathe, Kans.-based Industrial Fumigant Co., as a regional coordinator for the Southern United States.
“That was good experience, because I had done a lot of fumigations over the years,” says Walter. “But this was the largest fumigator of food plants in the U.S., and maybe even in the world.”
In 1982, Walter had the opportunity to operate a pest management company in McAllen. He joined two other partners at Abash Pest Control. A short time later, he bought out the partners to become the sole owner. At age 65, and after 10 years in the business, Walter sold Abash to Terminix in 1992.
Amidst all his leapfrogging, Walter was able to participate in association committees, including the National Pest Management Association’s (NPMA’s) government affairs committee, of which he was a member for 10 years. He also established himself as an educator in the industry.
He served as a Pest Control magazine columnist from 1981 to 1994, and continues to give educational presentations in both the food and pest management industries. In addition, he serves as an expert witness for various legal cases involving pest management companies.
“Vern Walter has been an example of the best our industry has to offer,” concludes Fred Webb of Whitmire Micro-Gen, San Antonio, Texas, who was among those who nominated Walter for the 2001 Pest Control Hall of Fame. “Vern’s expertise has made him world-renowned, yet he has always taken time to help his fellow PMPs. His willingness to serve the industry members through mentoring and education have made him a legend throughout the U.S.”