Don Witte, a longtime presence on APSP and NSPF technical and standards committees and a pioneer in testing the connection between drain covers and entrapment prevention, died in his sleep Nov. 19. He was 80.
“He was clearly one of the legends,” said Steve Barnes, chairman of the APSP Technical Committee. “But he was so humble he never talked about [his achievements].”
Donald Henry Witte (pronounced like witty) was born July 30, 1936 in Waterloo, Iowa and grew up in Fairmont, Minn. After attending the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, he worked as a mechanical engineer in the Twin Cities. He worked with Baker Engineering, then American Can Company, where he designed machinery for packaging and automatic assembly equipment for the food industry.
In 1970, he joined vinyl-liner pool manufacturer Fox Pool Corporation as its director of engineering and product development. He remained until 1979, when he founded his own manufacturing firm, called Pooltech.
In 1984, Witte began his career as an expert witness and consultant for personal injury litigation involving pools and spas, a role he played until his passing.
Witte also was an inventor, holding 15 U.S. patents, most related to pools.
He capitalized on his engineering training in his volunteer work with the industry, as well. For 40 years, he served on various APSP committees dedicated to writing or updating codes and volunteer standards. He also served on the board of the National Swimming Pool Foundation for nine years.
“I think you will find his fingerprints all over major issues, including dealing with diving pools before the Meneely case,” Barnes said, referring to the diving lawsuit that resulted in the bankruptcy and reorganization of the Association of Pool & Spa Professionals' predecessor, NSPI.
Among Witte's peers, he was known for his passion regarding pool and spa safety. Along with others in the industry, including his frequent expert-witness partner, Bill Rowley, Witte built a test pool at his second home in Florida, helped by a grant from the National Swimming Pool Foundation. There, he and his collaborators would test pool drains by enacting hypothetical entrapment incidents to help inform industry standards and local codes. In this regard, Witte was a pioneer: He worked with Rowley to perform this style of testing decades before the issue of entrapment came to the fore.
But, being in Florida, the pool was subject to hurricanes, as professionals who participated in tests with Witte witnessed first- and secondhand.
“A hurricane came through, and one of the palm trees he had fell down, right across the test tank, and crushed it,” said Rowley, of Rowley Forensic Engineering in Palos Verdes Estates, Calif. “I think there were three or four panels that were bent and just trashed, but he had some extra ones … and we went down and put the whole thing back together and we lived to fight another day!”
All the effort came from a deep-seated conviction, said Tom Lachocki, CEO of the National Swimming Pool Foundation. “He was very passionate about pool safety, and so most of the driver behind his engagement with standards was if it could save a kid’s life, it was worth the effort,” he said.
Witte also was known for his knowledge of codes and standards, and meticulous attention to detail. “I never met anyone who knew the codes and swimming pool regulations better than Don…” said Rowley. “When we got a case together, he would always work on the code end of it, and he was just bulletproof. It was pretty amazing.”
Added Lachocki: “If you had a question about where something came from or why something existed in the standards, he was usually the first person I would go to.”
At least two well-placed industry executives also credit Witte for changing the course of their careers. In 2003, Lachocki had a seemingly casual conversation with Witte, who, it now seems, was trying to gauge his interest in taking over the stewardship of the National Swimming Pool Foundation.
“We were talking about what we wanted to do when we grew up,” Lachocki said. “I expressed an interest that I may do something different at some point in my life. And he put my name in with head hunters for NSPF, which was looking for a new CEO.”
Additionally, Barnes said Witte sniffed him out as a potential APSP Technical Committee chairman before Barnes even realized he would be interested in the post. Witte had the long game in mind. At the time, Barnes was working for a relatively small company. Witte and another associate pulled Barnes aside and suggested he move to a larger company where he could dedicate his time to safety and compliance issues and really learn the ropes.
“They didn’t see anybody coming up to fill their shoes on these technical committees and in education and research,” said Barnes, also director of science and compliance at AquaStar Pool Products in San Diego. “It was Don who had painted a vision for me that we have a great industry that’s kind of immature and needs more science-based standards. It needs a lot more research.” Barnes did make the kind of career move Witte suggested, which eventually helped him land his position as APSP’s Technical Committee chairman.
In November, the Association of Pool & Spa Professionals recognized Witte’s accomplishments by naming him an APSP Fellow, an honor given to those whose work has helped elevate industry professionalism through education, research or exemplary service to others.
“He was always trying to be part of the solution and not part of the problem,” Rowley said. “He was a really creative and inventive thinker.”
In his off time, Witte liked to travel with his wife of 30 years, Jacqueline, and to winter in their home in Big Pine Key, Fla.
A memorial service was held Nov. 26 in Elmer, Okla. Burial is expected to take place at a later date in Winona, Minn.