When I “worked” for Charles Wampler Jr.
Charles Wampler Jr., a local poultry “icon” as our paper called him, has died at the age of 101. I feel privileged to say I worked for him, kind of, one autumn. I arranged a “professional internship” with the company his family founded, which was a continuing education sabbatical for me from my regular job at then Mennonite Media. I still have “a company shirt” for WLR Foods (a company long ago swallowed up in merger). I learned a lot that fall being exposed to how working in corporate communications a for-profit poultry company is worlds different (with many similar principles) than working for a not-for-profit media firm. You can read the story of that internship here.
The wonderful stories and laudatory remarks about Mr. Wampler have poured forth. He helped to found our area’s United Way chapter, served as a state legislator, was a great philanthropist and board member for the hospital, his church, the university (JMU and Virginia Tech) and countless charities. Word on the street is that he did these things because he enjoyed them, not to make a great name for himself. He truly deserves the outpouring of praise and remembrance, from senators to employees to little country stores. (Update: Opps, this is a different Charlie Wampler! Common name in our county. But I love the sentiment and the lovely drawings Grandles Glen View Market comes up with in little Singers Glen, so I’ll let it stay.)
One comment posted on our local TV channel’s Facebook page said:
From Tina Merica Warner: “I worked for Wampler Foods many years ago and you could not have met a nicer person than Charlie Wampler, Jr. He made a point of speaking to everyone he came in contact with and never met a stranger. RIP Charlie. My thoughts and prayers are with the Wampler Family.”
And Mr. Wampler’s daughter said this in a 2015 100th birthday article (he was born on Thanksgiving Day, 1915, so fitting for a turkey producer!) about her father in The Washington Post: “He would walk through the processing plants and call people by name, and they would call him Charlie,” recalls daughter Barbara Melby, 72. “He treated everybody with respect, and I think that was the secret.”
But 101-year-old legends have many great stories circulating about them, including this from that same Washington Post article. His father, Charlie Sr., who was inducted into American Poultry Historical Society’s Hall of Fame for his role in discovering that turkey eggs could be hatched without a mamma turkey keeping them warm, was an inventor and innovator.
“My father did all the thinking,” Charles Jr. commented when the WP reporter interviewed him. “I did all the work. And that’s a fact.” The writer recorded that everyone then “erupted into laughter at the line: daughter, reporter, photographer, even the birthday boy (2015).”
The line that caused me to erupt in inner laughter came the fall of my “professional internship” when Mr. Wampler came around the corporate communication office when my boss, Gail Price, was not there. Earlier Gail had introduced us, explained what I was doing for her and the company, and he had been content with our slightly unorthodox “grown up” internship.
This time, Charlie walked through the office, said hi and then asked me quizzically, “Are we paying you?”
Inside my head, I roared, secretly believing this told me a little something else about dear Mr. Wampler. He knew how to watch a dime. But politiely I responded, “No sir,” and added, “My own company is paying me.” (To my own boss’s foresighted credit, Mr. Ken Weaver!)
Mr. Wampler meets my mother. So, what happens when one man “who doesn’t know a stranger” and is wont to erupt with great lines, meets my mother, who absolutely doesn’t know a stranger either and has been known to say whatever is on her mind?
Several years after my internship, my mother and father enjoyed a 50th anniversary trip to Puerto Rico and like they did everywhere they went, looked up missionaries or churches. At a church there they ran into Charlie Wampler Jr. also traveling in Puerto Rico. They struck up a casual conversation and were surprised to learn Wampler was a Church of the Brethren member and from Virginia. “Our daughter lives in Virginia,” they explained. They shared their commonalty of both having been poultry farmers, even though their “career tracks” went markedly different directions in terms of monetary success. Mother of course recognized the name “Wampler” from some of their deli products she had tried at one time.
Mom, who often wrote to companies to tell them what she thought if a product did not meet her expectations, proceeded to tell Mr. Wampler that his chicken hot dogs, which she had tried because of sticking religiously to a low-cholesterol diet, were not worth carrying home. I’m not sure what happened next but I don’t think my mother will mind my sharing this story because, in her book, it was the truth and they needed to know.
I salute Mr. Wampler and the family for Charlie’s volunteering as many as five days as week as a greeter in the local hospital cafeteria up until he was 99, and “part time” as recently as two weeks ago, according to his obituary. One woman I know who works at the hospital says she’ll miss his greetings.
His grandson, Harry Jarrett Jr. reflected in the 2015 WPost article, “Everybody loved him because he was, and still is, obviously, very personable.” Harry is a former pastor and communicator par excellence himself. The Jarretts now operate the family farm “Sunny Slope” as a special events destination (weddings, events, reunions). “He cares about people. He remembers people’s names. I don’t think he was just interested in building a multimillion-dollar business, which of course he ended up doing. But he really had a heart for the community.”
We could do worse than emulate Mr. Charlie Wampler Jr. for his faith, his community spirit, and for his love of and interest in people. RIP and many happy memories to the family.
Any Charlie Wamper Jr. or Sr. stories to share? I’m all ears. Remembrances?