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Monday, December 22, 2014, 12:22 a.m.
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Saying goodbye

Walter’s Service Center sells after 57 years in family

By Tammy Keith

This article was originally published February 7, 2013 at 12:00 a.m. Updated February 6, 2013 at 10:05 a.m.

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The sale of Walter’s Service Center in downtown Conway was finalized Friday to Phil and Diana Hawks Kirkland. Standing in front of the station are, from the left, former owner Virginia Walter, Dee Ann Walter Davis, who managed the station, and Ed Erbach, a 45-year employee of the business. Started 57 years ago by the late Martin Walter, the business will remain open as it is remodeled to become Central Station convenience store. The Kirklands said they will keep the station’s full-service amenities.

There were a lot of laughs, hugs and a few tears Friday at Walter’s Service Center in downtown Conway as the 57-year-old family business closed.

“I keep saying it’s bittersweet,” Dee Ann Walter Davis said.

Her father, the late Martin Walter, started the business.

Davis, 42, and her mother, owner Virginia Walter, have been running the full-service gas station — the last of its kind in Conway — since Walter died on Feb. 4, 2000, a week before his 65th birthday.

Their right-hand man was Ed Erbach, 64, who worked for them for 45 years, up until 4 p.m. the last day of business.

Davis said that when he decided it was time to retire, they decided it was time to sell.

“It would be hard to replace Ed. I wouldn’t want to try,” she said.

The station has been sold to Phil and Diana Hawks Kirkland of Conway and will remain open as it is remodeled into a convenience store called Central Station.

The new owners plan to keep the tradition of the full-service station going.

“I’ve known most of the customers,” said Diana, who has lived in Conway since 1983.

Erbach knew customers’ names and talked to them about their families after asking, “Check the motor oil for you?”

On the rare occasion that Erbach would be off work, Davis said, customers would drive in and ask, “Is Ed OK? I don’t see his truck.”

Erbach said he was 18 when he started working with Martin Walter.

“My parents traded with him on Front Street,” Erbach said, which was where a dentist office is today.

Walter started there and moved his business three more times, ending up in about 1975 at the last location on Locust Avenue, Davis said.

Davis said she didn’t intend to go to work at the gas station. The self-proclaimed “outdoor girl” got a degree in business management from the University of Central Arkansas in Conway.

“Dad wanted someone to do the books so he didn’t have that in his hair,” she said.

Her brothers, Randy and Gary, had worked in the family business as teenagers, but not Davis.

“No, I didn’t plan on doing this, but the longer you’re here, you enjoy it.

“I got to meet all the customers my dad talked about and the funny stories,” she said.

Davis said her father and Erbach were both pranksters.

Her favorite story was of a prank that her father and Erbach pulled on unsuspecting customers.

Davis said they had an old television inside the station. A customer would be paying, and her father would say to Ed, “Take this out to my truck — don’t drop it.’”

Erbach would walk out, pretend to trip and drop the TV.

The customer would gasp and say something like, “Oh, my gosh!” Davis said, laughing.

There were so many customers.

Erbach said he couldn’t begin to count the families the station served.

“He was a people-person,” Davis said of her father.

She said that once on a family trip to Walt Disney World — “and you know how huge those parking lots are” — the family got out of their vehicle and excitedly headed off for the park, but her father wasn’t with them.

“He’s over talking two spaces down to someone that he knows that’s a customer,” she said. “It was like that everywhere we went — at church, a restaurant, anywhere we went.”

Davis said that in 1995, her father went into cardiac arrest one day while he was waiting on a customer, and he ended up having one leg amputated because of blood clots and complications.

“He couldn’t work, but he wanted to come and visit the customers,” she said.

Erbach said he stayed with the business 45 years because of “the people, mainly — lots of good people in Faulkner County.”

Davis agreed.

“I think that’s what we’ll miss the most. We’ve had a ton of people come by this week — we’ve gotten gifts, cakes, flowers, pictures,” she said.

Erbach stood in the parking lot next to his old beat-up Chevrolet Silverado. He said he plans to “drink coffee, goof off and work a little bit; … don’t want to sit around.”

Davis said she plans to finally be a stay-at-home mom for a while. She and her husband, Chad, a Conway firefighter, have two sons, Spencer, 16, and Parker, 12.

They practically grew up in the station, playing there in the summer and taking naps on their grandmother’s lap. The door frame inside the station has marks where Davis measured the boys’ heights every year.

“I’m not taking the board,” she said. “I taped spread-sheet paper and copied it over.” The plan is to transfer the measurements to a door frame in her garage at home, she said.

Asked what her late husband would think about them closing, Virginia’s eyes filled with tears.

“I think he would be proud that we kept it open,” she said. “He said, ‘Keep it open as long as you can, no matter what you have to do.’”

Someone suggested that for her newspaper photo, Davis hold a framed picture of her father taken in 1993 at the station.

She looked down at it and started crying.

As she wiped away tears, a man in a pickup drove up with his driver’s-side window down. “Hey, do you know where there’s a place to get a haircut around here?”

Of course she did.

Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

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