If you’ve spent any time in Tucson you’ve seen the swarms of quirky yellow VW bugs dressed up with floppy black ears and a tail. They’re the iconic Truly Nolen Pest Control Mousecars. But, did you know there really was a man called Truly David Nolen … and that he was Jewish?
Nolen was born in Indianapolis in 1928 to a devout Christian Science family. Following the Great Depression, Truly Wheatfield Nolen Sr. launched Economy Exterminators in Miami in 1938. The younger Nolen completed high school in Miami while helping with the family business. He later earned a degree in entomology from the University of Florida.
When the young graduate was struck by polio at age 23, his father deferred to Christian Science beliefs in prayers over science for healing. It was his mother who pushed for the iron lung treatment of the time, which saved his life. After regaining his strength, young Truly moved to Tucson in 1955 and with a $5,000 loan started his own, self-named pest control company.
An abundance of termites and a housing boom were boons to his business. (Did you know that Arizona has more species of termites than any other state in the nation?) Within three years, he had Truly Nolen offices in New Mexico and California as well as Arizona.
“Our cars were originally red, so we made them look like an ant,” the company’s website says, quoting Nolen. The Mousecar debuted in 1961. “From there, we added big ears, I mean really big ears, and a thin tail, and made it into a mouse. Over the years, we added eyebrows and the other features that you see today. It really was an evolution.”
“There is no doubt in my mind he is one of the great marketing geniuses of our time. Long after we are all gone, his Mousecars will continue to bring smiles forever,” says Truly Nolen company spokesman Toby Srebnik. A fleet of antique cars marked with the Truly Nolen signature also is scattered across Tucson and where other company outlets operate.
From Tucson, Nolen grew the business, merging with his father’s Florida company upon his father’s death in 1966. Today the operation has 78 corporate service offices in the United States and 44 domestic franchises in the United States, Canada, and Puerto Rico. Internationally, including the United States, there are 239 offices in 66 countries.
Nolen’s well documented “rules to live by” were: Find humor in everything, even adversity. Stay positive and persistent to the extreme. Work hard, play hard. Do what you want to, not just to make money. Don’t be afraid to be different — take a chance! His sense of humor was well known, and he often quoted films by Mel Brooks or his personal favorite, “Airplane!” In 2005, he published his autobiography, “Truly Original.”
With the third generation of Trulys underway — son Truly William Nolan — and four other children in Arizona, Nolen returned to Florida, where he married Vickie in 1985. Together they had three more children. Other children include Really Philip, Sincere Leigh, True Spyder Luke, Steven Scott, Bonnie Sue, Michelle, and Scarlett Sahara, many of whom remain active in the business.
“When we started having children we talked about religion,” Vickie recently told the AJP. “We thought it was important that the children had a religious background.” Together they visited different Christian churches. “Truly had grown up with a lot of Jewish families and neighbors in Florida. They had played out together. He loved their family life and the connection. He loved the people and culture. When we moved to Naples in 1992, we had friends and Jewish neighbors. Finally, he said, “I wish I could be Jewish.”
Vickie said she supported Truly’s conversion to Reform Judaism. “He started classes and went to Israel for his bar mitzvah in Jerusalem,” she recalls. “At that point, he became part of the Jewish community in Naples, served on committees and met with the rabbi weekly. He embraced it, was proud of it and wanted the children to embrace it.”
She describes him as a wonderful husband, man, and father. “He was a character and a great person. He felt comfortable being in temple, he felt home.” Not surprisingly, he supported the March of Dimes and Temple Shalom in Naples, along with other organizations.
Truly David Nolen died April 19, 2017 at the age of 89 in Naples, where he had lived for 25 years. But he leaves at least two more generations of Trulys with his legacy of the nation’s largest family-run pest control company. And his Mousecars will continue to bring smiles around the world.