Dave Wall died at the Niagara Falls hospital site Nov. 2, after a short illness, at the age of 91.
Wall, husband of Helen and father of Sharon and Richard, was one of the original six members of what was then called the Virgil Businessmen’s Association. He was also one of the founders of the Virgil Stampede, which has donated more than $1 million to community projects, the founder of Wall’s of Virgil, and a successful businessman who built a furniture store that competed with national chains for 60 years.
Dave lived a full, healthy life almost to the end, says Richard, who says he and his family have had the opportunity in the days leading up to last week’s funeral to share family memories.
Dave was born in Manitoba in 1927. The family moved to Niagara in 1936, where his father worked as a farmhand. It wasn’t an easy life, and at the age of 12, Dave lost his father. An insurance policy allowed for the purchase of a small farm, which he worked on with his older brother as well as going to school, and after high school, he worked on the farm and at General Motors. This was during the 1940s and 50s, when the automotive plant was called McKinnon’s, recalls Richard.
Dave married his first wife, Lillian, in 1950, and in 1954, he became a father, with the birth of Sharon. He took a Dale Carnegie Course, considered good training for business, which was sponsored by McKinnon Industries, says Richard, and was so successful Dave went on to become not only a confident and accomplished public speaker, but an instructor and director of the local Dale Carnegie program.
After a short time as an electrical contractor, he opened an appliance store on Niagara Stone Road in 1957, and became a young business owner with a family and a fruit farm on Wall Road.
Richard was born in 1966, to Helen, Dave’s second wife. He recalls from family conversations the troubled time of the early 60s.
Lillian, who was known to have a heart problem, was suffering from declining health, and required an operation in 1964. Even though her doctor was considered the best, she died during open heart surgery, which was new at the time and considered risky.
After her death, Dave made a conscious decision that in order to move forward, he would rebuild the family unit, and he went on to court, and marry Helen, Sharon’s Grade 1 teacher at Virgil School, in 1965. In 1966, Richard was born.
“He did some soul-searching, and decided he wasn’t going to let the travesty that had occurred define him,” says Richard.
Dave’s life as a business owner had begun with a 600 square foot appliance store, and he was able to expand that to a 6,600 square foot furniture store, with hard work and “creative” marketing, says Richard — his father was a skilled story-teller, and a born salesman.
During that time, Dave also put his leadership skills to work in his church, Grace Mennonite in St. Catharines, where he was a Sunday School teacher.
Despite suffering such a tragedy for a young man, Dave began what Richard describes as a “pivotal point” in his life.
“It was a very successful turnaround from the devastation of losing his first wife. And in true Dave Wall fashion, this was just the beginning of the next stage of his life.”
While expanding his business, he was on the board of his church and was spearheading a fundraiser for an ambitious church expansion, supporting the establishment of a church camp, and had established the Virgil Businessmen’s Association, with the mandate of supporting their community. He was also putting his efforts behind a VBA fundraiser to build the Virgil Arena.
There was a community infrastructure grant program for the centennial, to encourage legacy projects that would open in 1967. As president of the VBA, Dave made the decision and took the lead on the arena project, committing to raising $100,000, “a lot of money in those days, says Richard. “Some people were in favour of building the arena, but others thought they would never be able to raise that much money in such a small community. But never say never to my dad — that’s when he would dig in and do his best.”
He went to local businesses, and within 14 days had $25,000 pledged. Within a few short months, Richard says, they had achieved their goal.
Dave was named Citizen of the Year in 1967, and was especially proud of a telegram from then-prime minister Lester B. Pearson congratulating the VBA on the Centennial Arena, opened that year, and the largest per capita project built to celebrate the centennial.
His community dedication continued with decades of projects built at least partially from funds raised by the VBA, including ball diamonds, soccer fields, tennis courts, and the addition of property to the Virgil Sports Park, which would look very different today without his father’s input, says Richard. “That’s one of the things I heard from several people at the funeral who knew my dad — without him we wouldn’t have the sports park we have today. “
Most recently, in August, Dave was celebrated with his induction into the Town’s Sports Hall of Fame, for his efforts to get the first arena built and also in recognition of his love for hockey, which led to the establishment of the Wallbangers hockey team in 1984, originally a multi-generational father and son team that played pick-up hockey at 6:30 a.m. Sunday mornings. When the second arena opened, also with a large donation from the VBA, Dave, Richard and his son Brandon were the first to step on the ice, for a Wallbangers game, the first event to take place at the new arena.
At the Sports Wall of Fame induction, Richard was there to speak for his father, who had become frail, but “he got up and told a few stories, and then he recited a poem he had memorized as a young man. He mustered up his best Dale Carnegie voice and recited it all from memory, at the age of 91. It was his final public speaking event, and his health was failing, but he did it perfectly. I think that sums up who he was as a person.”
Dave also loved tennis, golf and baseball, spent time with Helen and family at a cottage they purchased in Muskoka, and winters at a Florida retreat. In the 1990s, Dave turned the running of the store over to Richard, who had begun his retail career at a very young age and was the beneficiary of many life and business lessons from his father.
He and Helen also played cards often, an activity Sharon could enjoy with them in recent months, in the Pleasant Manor apartment they had moved to after their Virgil home burned in 2016.
And his love of Scrabble was legendary. He and Helen never went anywhere without a Scrabble board, and to relieve the boredom of long drives in their motorhome, across Canada and to Florida, Dave would put the board on the engine compartment between the two seats, his tile holder on the dashboard in front of him. He’d work out his words and then hand his tiles to Helen and tell her where to place them. “I’m sure nobody ever thought that the distracted driving law should include Scrabble,” says Richard.
He recalls Dave as “a great father. He could be tough, especially at work. He had high expectations about school, sports, church, but not unreasonable.”
At the store, “business was business.” He could turn on the “family mode at home, and the business mode at work.”
Some of his life-lessons were hard, “but as you get older you learn to appreciate these lessons.”
Randy Klaassen, who wrote and published Dave Wall’s biography at the request of Helen, told one of his favourite stories about Dave’s legendary ability to make a sale.
“With the verbs, “taste” and “see,” we are invited to “try God. We are invited to experience God, as though to drink deeply, and to trust. Taste and see that the Lord is good …” says Klaassen, quoting from Psalm 34.
“Dave Wall was a salesman. It did not matter if the product was 1,400 umbrellas, or reindeer to advertise in a Christmas parade, Dave was always looking for an angle to make a sale at Wall’s,” says Klaassen.
In the early 1970s, Dave became the top independent retailer of “speed broiler” kitchen stoves. “His success was in his ‘taste and see’ sales pitch. If a customer was vaguely interested, Dave put a raw steak in the oven. In this oven a steak cooked in four minutes, while Dave casually engaged the customer in conversation. With the aroma of good beef filling the store, Dave took a knife, but then threw it across the room, saying, ‘When steak is properly done, you don’t need a knife to eat it.’ He then used a fork to slice off a piece of juicy beef, handing it to the customer. ‘Here, try this.’ His method resulted in a sale, about 75 per cent of the time.”
Dave worked hard and played hard, says Klaassen, and if he expected a lot of others, it was because he demanded a lot of himself.
Richard remembers that period as one during which he would go straight from school to the store, which would be filled with the aroma of a T-bone steak freshly cooked. The left-over steak, always the strip portion — the filet would be served to the customer — would be waiting for him. He witnessed his father’s ability to close the sale many times — the broiler was a $300 to $400 upgrade — and loved the drama with which he flung the knife across the store.
But in recent years, it has been his father’s commitment to the community of which Dave himself was most proud, and Richard has also been passed that torch, attending VBA meetings, taking on the presidency, taking the lead at the annual Virgil Stampede and contributing to the decision-making process of where the proceeds will be spent.
When Richard spoke to The Local about his father, he had just come from a check presentation to Red Roof Retreat — he’s a board member and has also helped organize fundraisers to support the special needs children and adults who are clients of Red Roof.
“He definitely taught me the importance of giving back to the community,” he says.
In addition to his wife, Helen, Dave leaves his daughter, Sharon MacMunn, Richard and his wife Cathy, and grandchildren Brandon, Thea and Taylor.