Mr SALTEX enters the GMA Hall of Fame


Derek Walder, the latest inductee into the GMA’s Hall of Fame revealed at this year’s 75th SALTEX, looks back on his lifetime’s involvement with the industry including his time with the Wimbledon FC ‘Crazy Gang’ and especially his influential role in delivering Europe’s leading turf management event for grounds care volunteers, professionals and manufacturers

By Colin Hoskins, freelance writer

Being inducted into the GMA Hall of Fame is the latest in a long line of well-deserved accolades for Derek Walder and, just like the Institute of Groundsmanship (IOG) Lifetime Achievement Award he received in 2014, it is justifiable acknowledgement of an illustrious career in an industry he has served diligently for more than half a century.

Previously a member of numerous GMA committees as well as the association’s board of directors, Derek has also completed stints as national chairman and president. He spent 26 years as the grounds manager at Wimbledon Football Club’s training site and now, aged 84, he has for 40 years been site manager/operations director for the SALTEX exhibition.

Deserving accolades

In addition to being awarded the British Empire Medal in 1991 for his services to groundsmanship, and in 2014 also receiving the Association of Event Organisers’ Unsung Hero award, Derek has regularly written, lectured and broadcast on all matters relating to turf care - including running lawn clinics for the BBC Gardeners World Live exhibition and involvement with the annual Chelsea Show as well as with the Britain in Bloom competition.

Indeed, the accolades not only recognise his individual talents as a SALTEX team leader and operations director - his dedication to this role was acknowledged ‘royally’ at the 2009 show when he was presented to HRH The Duke of Kent - but they also signify his expertise as an experienced horticulturist and groundsman.

GMA chief executive Geoff Webb, commenting on Derek’s latest honour, says: “Our Hall of Fame recognises outstanding contributions to the industry and Derek’s achievements go far beyond turf management by bringing together the grounds care sector successfully under one roof year on year. Derek has shown unswerving dedication to the success of SALTEX and for the benefit of all of the show’s stakeholders, and this award is richly deserved.”

Eventful career

Reflecting on his entry to the industry, Derek says: “My father was a manager of a private estate and I wanted to follow in his footsteps by joining his team. But dad would not hear of that – he didn’t want to risk being accused of favouritism – so I went off and got a job elsewhere as a garden lad. I progressed, moving up to become head gardener and it was then that I discovered that I really enjoyed looking after lawns. From there I went into golf, becoming a greenkeeper at Sandy Lodge Golf Club in Hertfordshire. Then I moved into the maintenance of sports surfaces at Richard Evans Playing Fields in Roehampton.

“The site was used by Fulham FC as its training ground; then Wimbledon FC used it for training until the club moved to Milton Keynes. I decided then to take early retirement because, basically, without the Wimbledon ‘Crazy Gang’ I knew that ‘work’ wouldn’t be the same.”

The Crazy Gang was a nickname used by the media to describe the Wimbledon football players during the 1980s and ‘90s. The name was used because of the often eccentric and boisterously macho-behaviour of the players, who frequently played outrageous practical jokes on each other and on the club's manager Dave Bassett. Dave, who was team manager from 1981 to 1987, said he well remembers Derek’s grounds management expertise: “Derek produced pristine pitches for us,” he said.

Derek continues: “I have so many fond memories of the 26 years I spent at the club and especially of the Crazy Gang and the antics of the likes of Vinnie Jones.”  He says one classic memory was when the club won the FA Cup (in 1988) and he was entrusted with the [solid silver] cup’s safekeeping overnight until it was collected for the next day’s open-top bus parade. He says he got very little sleep that night worrying about the responsibility of having such a valuable trophy in the house!

SALTEX support

But ‘retiring’ from work per se was the last thing on Derek’s mind. Already embroiled in GMA governance, he had become involved with SALTEX operations in 1970, being one of an army of members who over the years have given up their personal time to ensure SALTEX is a success. It’s a practice that has continued as the show moved from outdoor venues (Motspur Park and Windsor, for example) with their unique challenges – not least the vagaries of the weather - and more recently in 2014 to the Birmingham NEC and the new set of challenges that an indoor venue brought.

His resolve for attaining excellence in the management of the event has justifiably earned him the nickname of ‘Mr SALTEX’, but Derek is always the first to acknowledge his team whenever there are accolades concerning the show’s smooth running: “There’s no ‘i’ in ‘team’; I am surrounded by a great bunch of people who consistently commit 100 per cent to the show,” he says.

Commenting on this year’s event, Derek adds: “The events industry, including SALTEX, has experienced a very difficult time over the last year and a half. Due of Covid-19, we have had to plan for various possible scenarios including the possibilities of social distancing, mask wearing, reduced capacity in the exhibition halls and whether seminar theatres would be allowed. Thankfully, we have been able to move beyond restrictions that may have limited the visitor and exhibitor experience, but we have planned and replanned logistically for every scenario that came our way since the start of the pandemic. 

“Every aspect of staging an ultra-safe show has been considered, and now the 75th edition of SALTEX is ready to welcome everyone in the best possible environment.”

Away from the world of horticulture and grass that he loves, Derek likes to spend time watching sport, eating out and visiting historical sites. “But SALTEX is always on my mind and I often wake up in the early hours thinking about the show, worrying if this, or that, has been done.”

That statement, if you ever needed it, is another reason why he’s called ‘Mr SALTEX’ and it’s why his induction into the Hall of Fame is a much-deserved tribute.