By Veronica Rodriguez | Staff Writer
In the early morning of July 14, 2014, a Waltmire Pharmacy employee woke up to see his workplace on fire. According to WTAE’s coverage of the event, a surveillance camera caught an individual running to and from the store several times before the smoke from the fire obstructed the view of the building from its surroundings. The building burned until everything inside was melted or reduced to ashes. For the former owner, Don Waltmire, the fire was the last push he needed to consider retirement.
However, leaving the community after a tragedy was never an option for Waltmire. The neighborhood of Spring Garden is tucked away between the hills of the Northside. Despite the restricted access to the valley, Spring Garden is a tight knit community, one which, according to his employees, Waltmire would not abandon. In the WTAE article, Waltmire said he hoped to rebuild the place.
And rebuild he did. From a trailer in the parking lot, Waltmire worked, managed and rebuilt the pharmacy in its entirety. He wanted to make sure the community of Spring Garden knew he was not abandoning them, and it was that commitment to the community that kept the place alive after the tragedy.
When the time came to retire, Waltmire said he made sure to find a person fit for the job. He found someone who was not just looking to acquire a business, but who was willing to dedicate time and effort to nourish the sense of community that Waltmire himself had spent so long cultivating.
Waltmire and the new owner, Fred DePasquale, worked together for two months while passing down the ownership as part of a plan for a smoother transition. DePasquale said they wanted to make sure the customers and employees were comfortable with the change of management. DePasquale says the transition gave customers the opportunity to thank Waltmire for his service across generations and for not abandoning the community. He was becoming the new owner of the pharmacy, but as he said himself, “The business isn’t Waltmire Pharmacy, it was Mr. Waltmire. He was the business.”
DePasquale was not new to the pharmacy business before becoming the owner of Waltmire Pharmacy. He had owned two pharmacies earlier in his career, and the next project in Spring Garden was an opportunity that came with a brand-new building and a loyal clientele. Even though taking over the job meant not only managing the neighborhood pharmacy but also building upon the foundations of the community, DePasquale felt he was up for the challenge. After all, the element of community is what he loves the most about his job.
“The people are the reward,” he said. “You don’t see it every day. But you have those times, a few a year when a patient passes away and their kids make a point to come to see you and say ‘my mom and dad always talked about how great you guys treated them.’ There’s your job satisfaction.”
The pharmacy employees also share the owner’s appreciation for the customers. Tom Braun and Kelly Toth have been working at Waltmire Pharmacy for more than 10 years. When asked about their favorite part of working at the pharmacy, they both agreed that it was the customers.
“It’s not the same thing every day,” Kelly said. “You’re interacting with people you’ve known all your life or new people in the neighborhood.”
They still remember the fire as one of the darkest times for the business. Tom was the employee who woke up in the middle of the night to see the pharmacy on fire, and Kelly, the person responsible for inventory, worked closely with insurance in evaluating the damage, a process which she described as long and tedious. Their continued presence is proof of their dedication to the business and their love for the job.
Nine years after the fire, the pharmacy is still up and running, but not without the challenges that come with small businesses. According to DePasquale, the industry has changed a lot, but the 2020 pandemic was the game changer.
“We won over a lot of patients by giving them a good experience with the COVID shot,” he said, “if they trust you to give them a vaccination, they’re going to trust you to fill their prescriptions.” But not all the changes have been positive.
Recently, DePasquale announced, via the Waltmire Pharmacy Facebook page, that UPMC is restricting the availability of prescription coverage at pharmacies for those who get insurance through Pennie, Pennsylvania’s healthcare marketplace. DePasquale says this restriction completely excludes independent pharmacies.
“We don’t control our destiny, insurance carriers do,” DePasquale said.
He said insurance providers’ exclusion of small businesses is detrimental to their growth, as they take customers from them with the excuse that it’s what’s best for the customers.
“There are places, because of insurance plans, where products are less expensive but people come here because of the excellent service,” DePasquale said. “We are not trying to put CVS and RiteAid out of business.”
Despite the hardships of the past and present, DePasquale and the pharmacy employees still have fuel in their tanks for the community of Spring Garden. DePasquale said, “control what you can control.” For him, that means continuing to serve the neighborhood with dedication. And, for him, that is no problem. In the words of Fred DePasquale, “when you work in a nice neighborhood, you enjoy coming to work.”