Editor's Note: Bill Willard passed away in 2009, and John Willard Jr. has retired from CAW industries. John Willard III is now president of the family business. This story is revised from the May/June 1994 issue of South Dakota Magazine. To order a copy or to subscribe, call 800-456-5117.
|Dr. Willard in his classroom at the South Dakota School of Mines. Photos courtesy of CAW Industries.|
The absent-minded professor who invented Willard Water has been gone for years, but perhaps the best testimonial to his most famous invention is the fact that it is still being used on plants and animals and humans all over the world.
When Dr. John "Doc" Willard died in November of 1991 at age 84, friends and customers wondered what might become of the "super water" he developed in the 1930s as a cleaning agent. "Doc" Willard was not a shrewd businessman. He was too busy studying his product. He had a knack for showmanship, but plenty of scientific diplomas to keep people from calling him a snake oil salesman. His biggest public relations coup came in 1980 when Harry Reasoner of CBS' "60 Minutes" came to Rapid City and did a feature on Willard Water. Although the cynical Reasoner poked a little fun at the water's reputation, his report was basically positive and sales skyrocketed. Doc Willard became an overnight celebrity.
But "Doc's" biggest asset — his scientific background — may have also been a limitation. Because he was a scientist, he hesitated to let anyone else test his product. He went about the research in his own methodical way — slowly and painstakingly and without credibility because he had an obvious vested interest.
After Willard’s death, the business known as CAW Industries was operated by the old scientist's two sons. John Jr. handled sales and marketing and Bill oversaw production. "Dad was a brilliant scientist and one of the world's worst businessmen," laughed John when we spoke with him in 1994. "He caused me a lot of grief over the years." John said his dad wanted the business to stay small so he could have total control over research, production and marketing. "He was proud to have it as a family business. This kind of enterprise attracts every kind of con man in the United States and dad hated that part of it. Dad was an inventor first, and that was all he had on his mind. He just wanted to help people in South Dakota but he never did get it off the ground. You had to know him to understand. He never did have a lot of tact."
In fact, it wasn't until the "60 Minutes" show was televised that John and Bill became active in the business. "When that aired, it was total chaos,” John said. “The only thing that saved us was that my wife comes from a large family and they all helped us. Dad didn't even have an office back then. He didn't have any employees. Then in the next year he did over $900,000 in sales."
|Dr. Willard with Harry Reasoner in 1980.|
The Willard brothers moved the business into the Rushmore Industrial Park in the early 1990s. Their shiny, clean lab looks like a modern cheese plant. Large water tanks are used to blend the chemicals. It takes a day to do a batch of 300 gallons, and they have the capability of producing up to 1,000 gallons a day. Annually, CAW Industries produce up to 14,000 gallons of Willard Water.
The water is composed of sodium silicate, calcium chloride, magnesium sulfate and sulfated castor oil. The ingredients are combined in a process which makes a caloric particle. The particle has an electrical field surrounding it which polarizes the water, creating an arrangement of water molecules to each other in space that makes it more reactive.
Actually, there are two versions — Dr. Willard's Water Clear and Dr. Willard's Water XXX (Dark). The dark version contains activated carbon, amino acid, organic trace minerals and other ingredients from lignite coal deposits in North Dakota. In layman's terms, said John, Willard's Water is wetter than normal. It does the same thing water normally does, like cleaning or fertilizing, but does it quicker. They market the water in everything from gallon jugs to four-ounce bottles. Customers are instructed to mix one ounce of Dr. Willard's Water with one gallon of regular water to form a working solution they call Catalyst Altered Water (CAW). CAW can be drank, mixed with your shampoo, poured over burns, sprayed on the body, used as a cleaner, sprayed on plants or used "in just about any way you might normally use water," explained John.
Although the sons were more aggressive in business than their father — with the exception of the Reasoner report which he handled masterfully — they shared his belief in the product. "Dad used to refer to his water as 'serendipity' and I've tried to understand what he meant by that. To him it meant 'something that happens out of the ordinary that's good.'"
John overcame an occasional stutter and performed the speaking engagements his father once handled. He enjoyed telling people about the water. But he watched his words carefully, in print and in person. "We are very careful about what we claim the water will do, mainly so we don't get afoul of the FDA or USDA or any other agency of government. Our business is mostly word of mouth."
And that's working pretty well. When we visited the Willards in 1994, Earl and Sara Murray of Sturgis stopped by the plant to buy a pint of Willard's Water. They immediately began praising its benefits. If we hadn't been an hour early for the interview, it would have looked like a set-up. But the Murrays, conservative ranch folks who skip the nonsense, didn't look like they'd be part of any such scheme anyway. And neither do the Willards. But they would have made a good advertisement.
|The packaging has changed since Dr. Willard's days, but the product has not.|
When Willard Water users made claims about the product’s benefits, John often thought back to the day when his father first had an inkling there might be something more to the water than its cleansing properties. "He was working in his home lab and burned himself. He put his hand in a bucket of the CAW water and immediately the pain was gone.” Dr. Willard originally came upon the water as an answer to removing pollutants from coal-fired smokestacks. "Dad's dream was to do something for the environment," John says. Nobody knows for certain, but his compulsion to help people and the environment may have been heightened due to the ill effects which resulted from some of his early scientific works, namely the deadly Manhattan Project which resulted in nuclear weaponry.
Dr. Willard was born in Iowa and grew up in Madison, where he attended Eastern State Teachers College. In 1928, he married Gwennethe Drake, a nurse, and became a research chemist for DuPont. Among other things, he invented safety glass. He organized his own chemical company before returning to school and receiving a Ph.D. from Purdue in 1940.
While teaching at the Virginia Military Institute, he consulted on the Manhattan Project. He was commissioned in the U.S. Army Chemical Warfare Division. Following the war, he returned to South Dakota and became a chemistry professor at SDSMT in Rapid City.
One of his colleagues, the late Jack Gaines, remembered Willard’s devotion to education by saying, “He was very well respected. He taught nearly all the freshmen and he was just a beloved teacher. Nothing fancy. But a good teacher and a fine gentleman. Sometimes he had 100 to 150 students in class, and fortunately he had one of the biggest offices because it was often full of students.”
Dr. Willard retired from the School of Mines in 1973 to devote all his energies to development of his "super water." His wife died in 1969. Dr. Willard’s grandson, John Willard III, has been running the company since John Jr. retired and Bill’s death in 2009. Despite all the changes, CAW Industries will probably always be affected by the spirit of Dr. Willard. "After dad died I made a lot of changes," admitted John Jr. "And I often wondered if he approved of the way I was doing things. I think he did because deep down, we wanted to help the people of South Dakota and the world just like he did."
One thing that won't change at CAW Industries is the water. Their loyal customers say it's working just fine.