Woolsey feels he has been blessed many times in his life.

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By Panzi Blackwell

Herb Woolsey was released from active duty with the Army Infantry in September 1953. However, in early 1954, an armored tank unit in Vandalia needed a company commander, and Woolsey was asked to take the job.

He did and remained with the reserve unit as the commander until June 30, 1985, when it was disbanded. He served 34 years in the service and retired a colonel. An all-American patriot, he is often asked to speak at Memorial Day and Veterans Day events.

When he spoke at Vandalia’s recent Memorial Day program, his heartfelt words touched many and rekindled a new spirit of patriotism and gratitude for our county.

Following his discharge from active duty, he partnered with his brother, the late Gerald Woolsey, to start a liquid fertilizer business Jan. 1, 1954. Starting on the ground floor in a small, humble building, the brothers worked long, hard hours to build up their business.

Woolsey Brothers

The foundation of the business was built on the needs of farmers, the brothers’ dependability, integrity and fairness in their dealings, and – very important to them – appreciation for their customers and their employees.

Although highly successful as a businessman, Herb Woolsey is also a humble man and does not hesitate to give God the credit and glory for any and all accomplishments and success he has achieved in all of his life’s endeavors.

The business began in a humble, small building at 122 N. Sixth St. in Vandalia, and operated with low finances, hard work and prayer.

“My brother and Gerald started this business in 1954 and incorporated in 1963,” Woolsey said. “We sold stock in our company to six other investors.

Afterward, we bought all of their stock back into the company, and then just Gerald and I owned it. After a time, I bought out Gerald’s interest, but he still worked with the company.

Herb Woolsey’s humility, appreciation for others and his integrity in business and personal dealings account largely for the growth of the business. He hasn’t forgotten the early days, when he would drive around the countryside with the fertilizer truck, looking for farmers in their fields. He would ask them if they would let him apply his fertilizer to that field, or even just a portion of it.

A is for Appreciation

“One of the things that make us a big company is that we have a lot of good employees and a lot of them are long-term employees. I recognized those at the customer appreciation dinner that we had last March,” he said.

The customer appreciation dinner was begun years ago. “We have been blessed,” Woolsey said. “This will be our 49th year for our appreciation dinner. We do appreciate our customers and our employees, and that goes a long way in having an enjoyable life.

“I take it as a blessing that I can find the good side of things and don’t dwell on the bad side. When you get up and you can find the sunshine in the good things, as compared to the bad things and the dark clouds, you are going to have a lot better day,” he said.

“And you going to have a better business relationship, which will contribute to business success. I truly appreciate the confidence that people have in us, in allowing us to fertilize their crops and control their weeds and insects.

“We feed approximately 500 people at the American Legion in appreciation,” he said. “So we can handle that many people, we have a noon meal with entertainment and an evening meal, so when I said 49th, I meant the 49 year, not just that many meals, as we have two meals every year,” Woolsey said.

“There is nothing commercial about it. It’s in appreciation and acknowledgement, and I try to find a few humorous stories to pass along, which gets harder as time goes on,” he added, with a grin.

They always have quality entertainment, usually Nashville-type people. He is already making plans for a major celebration for the 50th year of appreciation dinners, with a special guest already lined up.

B for Blessings and Back in the Beginning

“In the early stages of this business, we went through a lot of financial distress and it was a long, hard way to get up and going,” Woolsey said.

“And through these times and yet today, one of my basic prayers was and is that we treat people in such a manner as to merit their patronage. It’s kind of simple, but I ask the Lord for His guidance that we have the ability to do that,” he said.

“I’m not saying that to put Christianity out as a sales thing; that’s just the way we do business,” he said. “I’m sure that has helped us in blessings. Now, I don’t mean we do everything to perfection; that means we put a sincere effort into doing the best we can in treating people fairly.”

C is for Continuity

“We have very competent employees, which allows us to give good service,” Woolsey said. His appreciation for his employees may very well be reflected in the employees’ loyalty, continuity and longevity with the company.

Full-time employees of Woolsey Brothers range from one employee of 42 years (Gary Ehrat) to others with 38 years, 35 years, 31 years, 29 years, 22 years, 18 years, and on consecutively to one year. Part-time employees range from 12 years of service to two years. Herb is counting his 56th year in the business.

“One thing I tell them when they put in their application is, ‘You do the very best job that you can, and we’ll be able to sell our products and service. You mess it up and nobody can sell it. They, the employees, are a critical part of us being able to sell our products and get their business, and I think they know that,” he said.

And C for Christianity…

Woolsey said he became a Christian at a young age at the First Baptist Church in Vandalia, “back in the Rev. Paul Carleton’s time.”I think, at that time, I accepted the Lord as my savior, but I don’t think I understood then that He is my Lord and Savior. Otherwise, I think I would have done a little better job of serving Him and fulfilling my responsibilities.”

Herb Woolsey did shoulder his responsibilities. He taught Sunday school for a lot of years, everything from 16-year-old boys to the most-advanced, eldest group there.

Changes over the years

“The size of the farm operations has increased a lot. We don’t deal with near as many people in our customer base, because of the size of the farms. When we first started with liquid fertilizer in 1958, we had an old route GMC truck that took us 33 swathes.

“It didn’t have any kind of guiding system, except I would put out a stake every 33 feet, and the center of my truck would knock them down. I would go pick them up carry them to the next row, and I’d have to step off to measure. “

“Now we have GPS guides, which are very precise and accurate. We now also have auto-steer, where the vehicle steers itself going through. Also, sprayers that will turn themselves off back on when you pull back into the field. You lay a boundary and it will spray everything you drive over,” he said. “And you can see a picture on a screen of what you have done.”

Family Affair

It is also a family affair. Herb and his late wife of many years, Dixie, had six children; Dixie died in 1997. All the children have worked at some point in the business.

Woolsey operates fertilizer plants in Vandalia, Patoka (ran by son, Randy) and Greenville (ran by son Raymond, and Gerald’s son, Kent, helps in that operation). Son Ronald and daughter, Rita, work at the Vandalia plant. Sons Ryan and Rick have helped in the business, also.

“We worked with a pencil until we got the computer system; that’s when we hired Rita,” he said. “Ron, who had a four-year tour in the Navy as a jet airplane mechanic, is head of our service department.”

Growing in Business, Stature, Leadership and Respect

Moving from their small site on North Sixth Street to the present location on Hillsboro Road (Ill. Route 185) meant big improvements in space and equipment, as well as progress in the environmental program. Woolsey Brothers was one of the first pioneers who were really serious about putting in facilities that were environmentally safe.

When new facilities were constructed in Vandalia, Patoka and Greenville, during 1989, 1990 and 1991, various ag industry groups from many states and even other countries, visited the Vandalia facility to get ideas on compliance.

The Midwest Agriculture Chemicals Association Inc. presented the Water Guardian Award to Herb Woolsey in 1991.

He has been active in many agriculture organizations, and served on the board of directors and held offices in the following: Fayette County Extension Council; Southern Illinois Fertilizer & Pesticide Conference; Illinois Feed & Grain Association; Illinois Fertilizer & Chemical Association; National Fertilizer and Solutions Association; Agricultural Retailers Association; and Fluid Fertilizer Foundation.

This began with a young man, home from active duty, driving around in an old fertilizer truck asking farmers to let him fertilize their fields.

Several plaques hang on the walls of his office. In 2008, Herb Woolsey was among five people chosen for a Fluid Fertilizer Fellows award, keeping company with those with doctorate degrees. The award was established to recognize individuals who have made outstanding contributions to the fluid fertilizer industry, and to those individuals advanced in their careers.

R for Retirement?

O course not! For Herb Woolsey, R means returning to work every day; retirement is not on his agenda.

He enjoys and appreciates the business, his employees, his family and, especially, pleasing the customers. He and another blessing, his wife, Mary (formerly Mary Cline Vise) attend church and Sunday school regularly, enjoy their home and an occasional pleasure trip, such as a recent trip to Branson with fellow church members and friends. Meanwhile, he still looks on the bright side of life, with humility, appreciation and thankfulness for his blessings.