Along with her husband and brother, longtime Texas County resident Phyllis Arthur helped establish ARPCO Pump Service back in 1967.
At the age of 82, Arthur can still be found behind the desk at ARPCO’s office on south U.S. 63. This week, she gained some recognition for working well beyond standard retirement age, being named as a regional winner in the 2013 Outstanding Older Worker of the Year contest.
The contest is sponsored by the Missouri Senior Employment Coordinating Committee – which is made up of representatives several organizations, including Experience Works and the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services – and is staged annually as part of the U.S. Department of Labor’s National Employ Older Workers Week.
Phyllis’ son David Arthur began working for ARPCO right out of high school, and now runs the business. It was he who nominated his mother for the award.
“I think you just have to do what you have to do when you get up a little in years,” Phyllis said. “When you get up in the morning, you just have to start out again and get going.”
Julie Allison, an employment training coordinator for Experience Works (a Virginia-based organization dedicated to improving the lives of older workers – especially of low income – through training, community service, and employment), said the contest includes 10 regions around the state and that Phyllis was chosen from among numerous nominees in the 10-county south-central region.
“She has outstanding qualifications,” Allison said. “She’s upbeat, she’s hardly ever sick or hospitalized, and we don’t have very many people with her skills and accomplishments. Many older workers are just kind of there, but from what we can surmise it sounds like she goes the extra mile.”
“Older workers play a vital role in our economy,” said Diane Chambers, state director for Experience Works Senior Community Service Employment Program. “They’re highly valued for qualities such as judgment, commitment to quality, attendance and punctuality.”
A graduate of Cabool High School, Phyllis raised five boys and for years worked on a dairy farm she and her husband Glen owned in the county’s White Rock area. Beginning in the early 1960s, Glen also worked for Phyllis’ brother Edgar Rust at Rust Utility.
“While his wife and kids were doing the dairy,” Phyllis quipped. “It had to be done every day, twice a day.”
The two men went on to open the ARPCO business later in the decade, using an acronym incorporating the first letters of their last names and the word “pump,” followed by the abbreviation for the word “company.” When Rust later left the company, the Arthurs maintained the ARPCO name.
“The ‘A’ and ‘R’ at the beginning seemed to still work, considering our name was Arthur,” said David.
ARPCO originally operated out of the Arthur home, using the Rust Utility store on First Street in Houston as an office and communications base. A two-way radio antenna was set up on a windmill tower right outside the store, and people would call there on the phone for pump service.
“Then they would radio us with the information,” Phyllis said. “The windmill had colorful fins and there was lots of light on it, so at night it really shined. The fins fell down years ago, but the tower is still there.”
In the early 1970s, ARPCO obtained land and put up a building adjacent to the USDA building south of town. Glen died in 1994, and the building burned about four years later.
The replacement building has been home to the ARPCO group ever since. Somewhat miraculously, a firefighter rescued many red-hot metal boxes from the still smoldering building containing customer information. He exited without a moment to spare.
“He said, ‘anything else?’” David said. “I said, ‘no get out of there.’ He had no more got out the window when the whole second story came down crashing right where he had been.
“I told him, ‘gosh, your life wasn’t worth those boxes.”
While many of the cards were charred right where the customers’ names had been written, directions to locations of pumps was preserved.
“There’s thousands of cards and all of them were in alphabetical order, and we’ve kept them that way,” David said. “Sometimes we can still make good use of them and figure out things we need to know.”
Other times, Phyllis’ virtual steel-trap memory comes in handy.
“She can remember names and other things going back a long way,” David said. “That’s a big plus.”
A year after her husband’s passing, Phyllis started a group for widows that came to be known as OWLS (On With Living).
“I didn’t come up with the name, but someone said everyone will want to know what the ‘s’ is for,” she said. “I said, ‘more than one.’”
After its formation, the OWLS group began gethering on a regular basis and still meets on the second Monday of every month at Pizza Express, with as many as 15 women sometimes in attendance.
Phyllis’ background also includes being the first-ever female bus driver for the Houston School District and one of the district’s first teacher’s aides. She was also the first volunteer for Hospice of Care, and she stayed with the organization for 29 years beginning in August of 1983.
“I have no idea how many people I helped,” she said, “but it was a lot. A lady who was a neighbor and good friend was my first patient. That was not a pleasant time.”
Phyllis (who has seven grandchildren, 11 great-grandchildren and “four wonderful daughter’s-in-law”) also spent several years as president of the county Extension Clubs organization, which led to her hospice connection.
When David filled out the Older Employee award nomination form, he wasn’t sure how to complete the space regarding the employee’s duties. Phyllis had for years been the backbone at ARPCO and performed a variety of tasks, including keeping books that were so spotless an auditor once stated they the best he’s ever laid eyes on.
“So I put ‘makes bread,’” David said. “There’s a kitchen in here and she used to make bread pretty often. Whenever she did, it always seemed like people started showing up at the door.”
A similar phenomenon repeatedly took place involving the son of the owner of a nearby business.
“I would make cookies, too,” Phyllis said, “and he would always show up. I’d say ‘how did you know I was making cookies?’ He’d say, ‘I could smell them.’ Apparently the wind was always blowing that way.”
David said it saddens him to know that many children more or less abandon their parents when they grow old, as opposed to the way seniors were revered, respected and well cared for by younger folks in days gone by.
“You can read in the Bible how they were treated very differently back then,” he said. “Now their kids will often stick them in nursing facilities and never visit.
“But we’re very supportive of her continuing and it’s been great having her here the whole time. Not to mention, how many times does someone get a chance to be their mom’s employer? That never happens.”
“If I didn’t do this, I don’t know what I would do,” Phyllis said. “I have to have people to be around.”
For more information about Experience Works, log onto www.experienceworks.org.
For more information about the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, log onto www.health.mo.gov.