Service with a song: Walters’ station offers personal touch in parish

Published 12:00 am Saturday, December 2, 2000

FERRIDAY, La. – When Bill Walters first took ownership of a gas station on what is now E.E. Wallace Boulevard, the station had been closed for months, and business was slow to start up again.

So at his brother’s suggestion, Walters put up a sign that said &uot;Lady, I’ll Pump Your Gas.&uot; Nurses from Riverland Medical Center started to visit the station. &uot;They didn’t want to get their uniforms dirty pumping gas,&uot;&160;he said.

And he’s been providing full service with a smile – and a song – in Ferriday ever since.

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Actually, Walters – who has now operated the Highway 84 Texaco at 124 S. E.E. Wallace Boulevard for more than 10 years – got his start in the gas station business in Monterey.

It was 1976, and Walters had just gotten out of the U.S. Navy. &uot;Being on a aircraft carrier, I&160;had to know how to do a little bit of everything – be a carpenter, electrician and mechanic,&uot; he said.

Walters, a Rayville native, came to Monterey to live near relatives. And when he found out that a gas station previously run by Lee Dale in Concordia Parish’s Lismore community was for sale, he jumped at the chance.

&uot;We had just about everything in there – a service station, a grocery store, and even a bar,&uot; Walters said.

He kept that store for eight years, then sold it to his brother. He then went to work as a carpenter until, as an older man in a soft economy, he could hardly find work.

Walters, once a service station owner himself, settled for a job at a service station not far from where his Highway 84 Texaco sits.

&uot;Then I came to my senses,&uot;&160;Walters said. &uot;I said, ‘What am I&160;doing sweeping the sidewalk in front of a gas station in Ferriday, Louisiana at three in the morning?’ &uot;

It was then that his brother brought a vacant Conoco station in north Ferriday to Walters’ attention, and Walters was once again drawn to the business.

&uot;When I got here, there were at least five other full-service stations in Ferriday,&uot; Walters said. That’s when he got the idea for the sign – and with the publicity boost, business picked up slowly but surely.

Walters leased that station until he bought his current one in the late ’80s – &uot; ’87, ’88 or ’89, I believe,&uot; he said.

Walters plans to keep his station, the only full-service gas station left in Ferriday, open as long as possible and even plans to expand it in the future as money permits.

For one thing, he has much money invested in the business itself. He admitted that he cannot compete against carpenters half his age any more. And, perhaps more important to Walters, he enjoys the people.

&uot;I&160;enjoy waiting on people, helping them any way I&160;can,&uot; he said, gazing out the window at the traffic passing by on the main thoroughfare.

There are limits, of course. Walters has taken to charging $1 to put air in someone’s tires and another $1 to check under their vehicle’s hood – with a $5 gas purchase.

&uot;Some people will get their gas cheaper someplace else, then drive across to this place and ask us to check the air in their tires or something like that,&uot;&160;Walters said. &uot;I&160;believe in service, but some people will take advantage of you.&uot;

Still, Walters believes in true full service – pumping gas, checking fluid levels, changing oil and checking tires and windshield wiper blades.

The cross-training he learned in the Navy, he now says, helping him become a jack-of-all-trades in the service station business.

&uot;Good service is basically doing whatever it takes,&uot; he said.

If Highway 84 Texaco cannot fix a problem, Walters can almost always refer the customer to a reputable mechanic in the area. And when it comes to products, he doesn’t always sell them the house brand.

&uot;If I&160;know a person’s on a fixed income – and I usually know who they are – I’ll tell them, ‘You can get this antifreeze somewhere else … and save a couple of bucks,&uot;&160;Walters said. &uot;I like to be honest with people.&uot;

He gives directions to the lost and enjoys telling any out-of-towner who will listen about his town’s famous natives, including Jerry Lee Lewis, Mickey Gilley and the Rev. Jimmy Swaggart.

A picture of Mickey Gilley hangs on the wall of the station’s office. When asked if he sees himself as a local ambassador, he smiles. &uot;I sure try to be,&uot;&160;he said.

He has even provided gas and car maintenance for visitors who did not know English.

&uot;One couple was German, and they only spoke broken English,&uot; Walters said. &uot;But you can still understand what they want … and fix it as best you can.&uot;

When business is slow, he strums a guitar, playing old country standards and hymns. &uot;I don’t like the new ‘gospel rock,’&uot; he said, strumming a few measures on a guitar. &uot;It doesn’t have the same feeling to it … as ‘The Old Rugged Cross.’&uot;

Sometimes customers drop in and play a tune with him, accompanying Walters on the other guitar that hangs behind the counter.

Walters believes full service with the personal touch is what will keep stations like his – where they can still be found – alive in the new millennium.

And as the mom-and-pop stores go, he said, so goes a local economy.

&uot;Anything I can do to bring attention to Ferriday and help its economy, I’ll do,&uot;&160;Walters said. &uot;We’ve got some of the greatest people in the world here in Ferriday.&uot;