We’ve all met unforgettable people in our lives. Some were great in their fields. Some were just people we loved or who had a certain something that drew us to them. This is about one of the unforgettable people in my life.
One of the most memorable characters from my childhood was my Uncle Willy. He lived across the street from us until I was two or three years old, along with his wife, Miss Beebee, and his kids, Crystelle and Halden. Actually, William Clarence “Bill” Conner wasn’t my uncle, but when I was a kid it was common for close family friends to be given the titles of Aunt and Uncle. It was a show of both respect and endearment.
My memories of that era are a bit sketchy. After all, how much do you remember from when you were two or three years old? I know from what I heard later that Uncle Willy was a detail man—a pharmaceutical salesman—for Wyeth Laboratories. He was always a jolly, fun person to be around.
While my dad was still in the army as World War II wound down, the Conners moved from our North Dallas neighborhood to Fort Worth, where he and another Wyeth detail man, Robert Denzil “Bob” Alexander, opened their own pharmacy, Alcon Prescription Laboratories. Both Uncle Willy and Bob had the drive of entrepreneurship and a deep-seated desire to develop and manufacture pharmaceuticals of their own, and the pharmacy gave them the income to live on while they did their lab work on the side.
Before long they got to a point where they decided to concentrate solely on the manufacturing. They sold the pharmacy to Ralph Gibson and Bill Whitten and went full steam ahead with Alcon.
My father, James N. Walker, was a pediatrician in addition to being a close friend of Uncle Willy’s, and he was one of the original investors and served as a director of the company for some 18 years. His biggest contribution to Alcon’s success was his suggestion that they develop and market a nasal spray called Alconefrin which became the cash cow to allow the company to grow for its first decade or so.
Uncle Willy served as President, CEO and Chairman of the Board for some 33 years before Alcon was sold to Nestle’s. People who worked for him during those days probably didn’t see the warm, jolly person I knew him to be, because it took a focused, disciplined leader to build the company as he did, and he could be very stern.
Halden, Uncle Willy’s oldest son, tells of a time when he was a kid and they were visiting his grandparents on the farm where his dad grew up. He, his dad and his granddad were out in a field on the tractor when it was time to go back to the house for dinner. Halden asked his granddad if he could drive the tractor back to the house, and his granddad agreed.
As soon as the tractor began to move, Uncle Willy started telling Halden every little thing to do or not to do—apparently acting like an army drill sergeant and really upsetting Halden. Before long the grandfather spoke up and said, “Bill, if you’d shut up, I think this boy could get us back to the house just fine. Halden said he couldn’t believe anybody could tell his dad to shut up.
These days, Alcon is a multi-billioninternational pharmaceutical company and has long been the world’s largest manufacturer of prescription eye products. Thousands of people have been involved in building Alcon into what it is today, but none of this would have happened without the personality, character and drive of William C. Conner, my Uncle Willy.
Ø Who are some of your unforgettable characters?
Ø How have some or all of these people affected your life?
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