Old soldiers never die; they just go back to work

by Phil Burgess, Unabridged from the Life section of the Annapolis Capital, Sunday December 21, 2014

Unabridged from my Bonus Years column in the Lifestyle section of The Sunday Capital, Annapolis, Maryland.

Ron Edwards may not have nine lives, but he sure challenges the observation of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who said before Congress in 1951 that “Old soldiers never die; they just fade away.”

Instead of fading away after spending more than 20 years in the Air Force, Lt. Col. Edwards retired in 1987 to start a new career.

Armed with a master’s degree in management and experience in the Air Force working on advanced technologies — from cryptology to logistics — it was natural that he would explore technology-related business opportunities in his new life.

He began with a five-year stint developing unmanned aerial vehicles for a defense contractor.

His search ended in 1994 when he incorporated a Hague Water Quality dealership, launching a full bonus years career in a business to advance water quality improvement in Maryland. He headed down this path on the advice of his wife’s sister who, while heading the EPA, counseled, “Ron, water is not getting any better and someone needs to fix it”

From the United Nations to the National Academy of Sciences, we know that access to fresh water is viewed as a major problem facing most of the world in the 21st century. But in talking to Ron, I was surprised to find that clean and healthy water — especially well water — is often a problem in Maryland, more so than in many other states.

According to Ron, “Maryland has some of the worst well water in the U.S., including excessive iron, radioactive particulate, hydrogen sulfide, acidity, arsenic and mineral hardness. This problem is most pronounced east of I-95 where retreating glaciers left thick sediments that are home to many contaminants.”

As Ron explains, “Because water is the universal solvent, it tends to absorb a little of almost everything it contacts. As a result, water easily picks up materials that can be detrimental to your home, your business and sometimes your health.

“When water dissolves iron, calcium and magnesium, the result is ‘hard water’ that leaves ugly stains on everything from sinks to toilet bowls. It can damage shower heads, kettles and drains. It can rob you as lime deposits cause the water heater to use more electricity or gas to heat the water.”

Next, he described more serious health problems from contaminated water — such as arsenic, radium, lead and bacteria which can be found in some local well water. Then there’s the problem of aging municipal pipes that carry water to our home.

TMI — too much information — I thought as we talked. “Now I have something else to worry about. I didn’t need this. I was perfectly content with the water security provided by the water softener in our basement. Not any more.”

The more we talked, the more I learned and the more impressed I was with Ron’s dedication to clean water, a healthy environment and to providing good jobs for the 30 employees of Hague Water Quality/Maryland, serving residential and light commercial customers in Maryland, Delaware, Virginia and Washington, D.C.

But I was also impressed with how a man of many achievements during his military career turned a deaf ear to a culture that lures able men and women at the top of their game to retire to years of endless leisure and amusement.

Conventional retirement was clearly an option for Ron and Mary Margaret McGill, his wife of 52 years, because Mary, a certified mechanical engineer with an advanced degree in petroleum engineering, had served with the Air Force, Navy and Army Corps of Engineers, and retired after more than 30 years.

Instead they set out to use their resources, knowledge and many skills to start, run and expand a business that is helping to make the world a better place.

The future is important because Ron and Mary raised six children and now have 15 grandchildren, all residents of Anne Arundel County, not far from their home in Severna Park, where they’ve lived for the past 39 years. Four of their adult children work in his business, so it’s something of a family affair.

Ron is also active in civic affairs — including past president and governor in Optimist International and a current member of the boards of the International Water Quality Association and the local New Providence Club of Annapolis.

But it’s his performance in business affairs during his bonus years that is remarkable.

Ron has been named one of Hague’s top 10 dealers 19 times and the business of the year by Annapolis SCORE. He has received a statewide award for hiring the handicapped and the Maryland Better Business Bureau’s top award for ethics in business.

His business leadership, featured repeatedly by national Water Technology magazine, includes the selection as the USA’s Dealer of the Year in the water treatment industry.

Ron has also been an innovator, introducing advanced technology in the area of bottleless water cooler/purifiers to replace bottled water, and water filtration, conditioning and reverse osmosis systems that convert low quality water to pure drinking water.

Ron said one of his biggest challenges in business is the finding of the right people. “Each of our products and services requires a different skill set and knowledge base. Finding, training and retaining the right people are a major challenge.”

Ron gives a lot of credit to SCORE for his success. SCORE has assigned Ray Robertson as a volunteer business adviser, and Ron and Ray have assembled a business advisory council of SCORE volunteers that meets quarterly.

“I have always sought other points of view in every job I’ve had. SCORE has been an invaluable source of ideas as well as second opinions in this job.”

Though Ron turned 75 last August, he looks 60 and has the energy of a 40-year-old. “I’m not a maintenance-type person. I like putting a lot of balls in the air and having the right people to make things happen. That’s what keeps me going. Whether it’s solving someone’s water problem or solving a business problem, I’ve always found problem-solving satisfying.”

Talking with Ron and visiting his place of business made me think of Donald Trump’s quip: “If you’re interested in ‘balancing’ work and pleasure, stop trying. Instead make your work more pleasurable.”

Perhaps Andrew Jackson said it best: “There is no pleasure in having nothing to do.”

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