June 25, 2014 Edition

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Friends reflect on 'Button' Wallin

Michael "Zip" Wallin, in the pilot's seat, has followed in the footsteps of his father Michael "Button" Wallin, standing on the wing.

John Bland

Michael "Button" Wallin of Walnut Ridge died Tuesday, June 17, after fighting a battle with cancer that had just become a serious threat in the recent days before his death.

A member of the Walnut Ridge City Council, Button had earlier this year announced his intentions to run for mayor. During a highly successful career as an agriculture pilot, Button had accumulated, not only customers, but also many friends along with way.

At the visitation and funeral service on Sunday, a standing-room-only crowd poured into the First United Methodist Church. At the cemetery, fellow agri pilots performed a flyover as a tribute.

Ed Lawson, who served on the city council with Button, placed a white wreath on the mayor's office door last week to honor his passing.

"Button was a tremendous asset to our city. I'm afraid the citizens may never realize how much he truly loved this town and the amount of time that he dedicated to it," Lawson said.

"He had served on both the Airport Commission and Council for many years. I looked up to him in many ways and had a high regard and respect for him." Lawson, who is also a pilot, said he would often call upon Button for aviation advice or questions regarding city business and he was always willing to help. "I have a big void in my heart as I know many do at this time," Lawson added.

Cap Phillips, local farmer, said his initial dealings with Button were business, and then the two became good friends. "He was not only an excellent aerial applicator, he was also a genuinely good person who had everyone's best interest at heart."

"He was a hard worker who cared about his business, but he also cared about Walnut Ridge and Northeast Arkansas," Phillips said. "He wanted us all to have a better place to live. He will be missed."

Jim Cunningham has been Button's friend for over 40 years. As a teenager, Cunningham would hang out at the bowling alley and Button would be next door, working on cars at the garage and wrecker service owned by his grandfather, W.E. Wallin, who raised Button.

"I flew with him all the time," Cunningham said. "He was something else."

"Then, we got to going to the lake together," Cunningham said. They both bought Glastron speedboats. Cunningham recalled that Button's boat was red, just like his red pickup truck and the stripe on his plane. At Lake Norfork, they would try to ski from the dam all the way to Henderson.

Cunningham farms near Wallin's flying service, so he has continued to see him regularly. He was with Button on a recent Saturday, one of the last days Button flew, when he was applying fertilizer for Scott Brady. Cunningham knew that Button wasn't feeling well and offered to help him load fertilizer and fuel his plane. Button told Cunningham that Natalie (his wife) would be bringing him lunch soon and that food would make him feel better.

Cunningham said Button would talk to him about his son, Michael "Zip" Wallin, who has followed in his footsteps as an agri pilot. Button was extremely proud of Zip and of the good pilot Zip had become, Cunningham said.

"He was a good friend. I'm sure gonna miss him."

Button Wallin was not only an uncle to Marty Digman but also a friend. At a young age, they worked many hours in the garage and wrecker service. They worked on Jeeps, and occasionally would sneak off to play "rat patrol" in an Army-style Jeep at the sand pits. Marty recalled that once they ran out of gas and had to walk back to town.

As did Button, Marty moved from vehicles to airplanes. Marty is now a jet airplane mechanic in the Dallas, Texas, area.

"He was like a son to me," said Nick Vaccari, who moved to Walnut Ridge in 1960, when Button was 11 years old. Vaccari would see Button at Wallin's Garage and Wrecker Service and said that Button was self-taught and very mechanically inclined. "He became a very good car mechanic."

As agriculture pilot himself, Vaccari said, "I would call Button to fix my loader trucks. He would stay around and watch the planes. He loved the airplanes."

Nick soon became Button's mentor, and he often sought advice. "Nick, I'd like to learn how to crop dust," Button told him.

"Have your granddaddy buy you an airplane," was Nick's advice. He told Button to accumulate as many flying hours as he could in order to obtain his commercial pilot's license. "Then come back to me," he added.

Nick flew with Button many times and showed him maneuvers, such as how to fly low and come onto a field. "In this business, you've got to be very careful. One mistake will kill you," he told Button.

"He took me at my word. He listened to me," Nick said. "He was a very cautious pilot."

After getting his commercial license, Button's first stop was at Nick's flying service. He would then spend the next 15 years working for Vaccari.

In those days, with several planes and several pilots, Vaccari said they were very busy and were the only ones in the business in a four-county area.

After two extremely hot, dry summers, 1980 and 1981, Vaccari had trouble getting payment from farmers who were in financial distress. He was forced to tell his pilots to go out on their own. Button went into business for himself in 1983.

Vaccari later tried retirement and living at Lake Norfork, but after two months, he was bored stiff.

Luckily, he got a phone call from Button, who asked Nick if he would help him out. Nick would work for Button from 1993 until 2011, when Nick was 83.

"He built a terrific flying service with hard work," said Nick. "I was very proud of him."

"We've been like father and son all these years. I was like a second father."

Vaccari, who is now 85 years old, said, "I told Button that I would have given him some of my health if I could have."

(Editors's note: Time prevented us from talking to several others who would have liked to share their stories about Button.)

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