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Ben Weathersby.

Ed. Note: Rick Vlahos is the current executive director of the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Education Foundation, and also of the National Fireplace Institute.

Vlahos: “Our industry succeeds because of many people. There are those who are well known and others who serve quietly behind the scenes. The less visible supporters simply do what needs to be done without any expectation of recognition. They are committed to giving their best to make the industry better.

“That's the best way to describe Ben Weathersby, who worked for the National Fireplace Institute (NFI) for most of his career. Although the development and credibility of the NFI Certification involved the work of many people, the backbone of the program is a direct result of Ben’s desire to develop and maintain a quality program. He wanted to create a standard of excellence that’s not only credible in a court of law, but also establishes the job of a hearth appliance installer as a profession, just like that of an electrician or a plumber.

“Ben recently retired from his role as director of Certification Programs for the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Education Foundation (HPBEF). Officially, Ben worked for the HPBEF for just over 15 years, although his efforts on behalf of the industry go back much further.

“Ben started in the hearth industry as a stove retailer in Mississippi in the 1970s. By the mid-1980s, Ben's Master’s degree in English and his passion for education spilled over into his new career; in 1987 he joined the Board of Directors for the Wood Heat Education and Research Foundation (WHERF).  Since that time, he has been involved with every manual and certification exam produced by WHERF, the HEARTH Education Foundation (HPBEF) and the NFI.

“In theory, creating an exam seems so simple. All you have to do is sit down and write down everything an appliance installer needs to know, and then write a bunch of related exam questions to see if the test takers have studied the material. In reality, it’s very difficult to create a certification that local municipalities will recognize and a court of law will uphold as credible.

“The hearth industry needed to find a well-educated person who knew the material, served the role of technical writer, had the desire to learn what it takes to develop a credible certification program, and had both a passion for detail and the will to create a standard of excellence that could withstand legal scrutiny.

“For the last few decades, Ben Weathersby embodied that ideal educator.
“Anyone who has ever taken the NFI exam will describe it with choice words; it’s truly a difficult exam. It was carefully designed to separate those who happen to be good test-takers from those who have studied and know the material in-depth. To this day, the detail and quality of the manuals and the exams are what make the NFI Certification a credible program.

“Ben is largely responsible for originating and maintaining that standard.”

Ed. Note: Brian Katz spent many years working with Ben Weathersby in setting up the National Fireplace Institute. During that 15-year period, he was in the employ of Personnel Decisions Research Institute as a psychometrician.

Katz: “I was lucky enough to meet Ben at a certification conference 15 years ago. He was on a quest to find a company that could help the NFI (then called HEARTH) develop a certification program that met – and exceeded – industry testing standards.

“During my very first conversation with Ben, it was evident that he was passionate about this issue and cared deeply about the fireplace industry. That initial conversation led to a long-term working relationship, and friendship, as we labored side-by-side to meticulously develop certification exams that effectively measured the knowledge needed to install gas, wood-burning, and pellet fireplaces.

“Ben worked tirelessly behind the scenes to make sure we perfectly captured the underlying issue behind each test question, and spent endless hours researching each question to ensure it was measuring important information that applied to every type of fireplace, no matter how obscure the model. This work was not always glamorous; however, it was critical to the success of the certification program.

“I’ve never met anyone who cared about an issue as much as Ben cared about the NFI’s certification program. The NFI, the fireplace industry, and the general public have all benefitted immensely from Ben’s work in developing a world-class certification program; his contributions will be remembered for a very long time.”

Ed. Note: Chuck Brewster, owner of Accent Sales in Massachusetts, has been an independent sales representative for decades. He also has served the industry in many different capacities over the years, including several on the HPBEF (formerly known as the HEARTH Education Foundation) Board of Governors.

Brewster: “I met Ben Weathersby in the 1990s when I was approached by HEARTH to help review the new Pellet Specialist manual that Ben was working on.  Little did I know what that would entail, and what a taskmaster this seemingly mild-mannered fellow would be. I have no doubt that anyone who has been recruited as a manual or certification test reviewer will echo my sentiments.  

“I would find myself up at 5am on a typical Sunday morning (after a full week of travel as a manufacturer’s rep) reading and editing material. My reward would be a new batch of materials to proof the following weekend.  We made an odd couple: a Yankee from New England with roots stretching back to Colonial times, and a genuine Southern Gentleman. I think we made a good team.

“As a result of the manual project, I was asked (Shanghaied is more like it), to join the HEARTH Board of Directors and ultimately to serve as its president. Ben was a fixture at HEARTH, charged with manual and certification test development, and I got to know the other side of Mr. Weathersby.

“He has an unshakable commitment to quality and could, on occasion, be considered stubborn, perhaps even dogmatic. Okay, on more than a few occasions. Ben had a long-range vision for HEARTH training and certification that required materials that would bear scrutiny from regulatory agencies. He was rightly convinced that the programs needed improvement and had to meet certification standards.  

“Ben studied the requirements of national standards for accreditation of certifying programs and introduced me to 'psychotic-beauticians' (psychometricians) who would verify the validity of test materials. His former experience as an educator gave him an organized framework and a tireless drive to research and develop top quality training materials and tests.

“Regardless of budgetary restrictions, Ben would not compromise on the quality of the materials HEARTH produced. We butted heads on occasion over budgets but, ultimately, he was right (don’t tell him I said that).

“Ben will leave behind a very, very large pair of shoes to fill. The HPBA and the NFI will need to find someone with that unshakable commitment and very high standards. Trying to find someone with his background in the industry and the knowledge he gained from years of experience will be fruitless. The industry can best honor his legacy by growing and improving the programs he leaves behind.  

“I guarantee that Ben views the programs as far from completed – as a work in progress. I will not speak for him, but I believe he shares my disappointment that Hearth Industry NFI Certified Specialist(s) have not been universally recognized as a trade group having specialized knowledge unique to this industry by local, state and national regulators and code officials.  

“Moreover, the fact that every installer of hearth products is not NFI certified as a matter of course is an unrealized goal. The challenge for the industry is to move forward and to fulfill the vision Ben Weathersby so eloquently espoused and to which he dedicated himself.  

“I am proud to call Ben Weathersby my friend; he will be missed.”

Vlahos: “Chuck is right. Ben will be missed and his shoes will be very hard to fill. But the groundwork he laid will be the foundation of the hearth industry education and certification programs for many years to come. Many people will never realize the impact his work is having, and will have, on their career because Ben worked quietly behind the scenes.”

Photo: 2015©Adam Weathersby.

© Copyright 2021 Hearth & Home Magazine

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