DeRoyal celebrates 50 years

Beth KinnaneHalls, Our Town Stories, Powell

Had its founder been less fastidious about things like cleanliness and order, Knox County might have missed out on one of its enduring businesses, DeRoyal Industries. DeRoyal is celebrating its golden anniversary this year, and there is no separating its history from that of Pete DeBusk.

A proclaimed animal lover, DeBusk had set his sights nearly 60 years ago on becoming a veterinarian. But once he arrived at the University of Georgia for vet school in 1965, he found the less than sanitary conditions for treating our four-legged friends did not match his temperament. So, it was back to the drawing board.

DeRoyal founder and board chair, Pete DeBusk

DeBusk’s inner house cleaner grew from the itinerate life he lived as an only child, moving about with his parents as his father found work in coal camps. A good chunk of his childhood was spent living out of a travel trailer, and in his book, The Rabbit’s Got the Gun, he explained how his mother taught him how to care for his clothes and keep his space tidy, a necessity in cramped quarters.

A true son of Appalachia, he was born in the mountains of southwestern Virginia in the tiny coal town of Rose Hill. The family’s travels took him to Indiana, southeastern Kentucky and West Virginia. Pete isn’t even his real name, it’s a nickname given to him by his uncles. He was named Autry after Gene the singing cowboy with the middle name O.V. after one of his father’s friends.

Don’t ask him what the O.V. stands for, nobody knows, but he wrote that his uncles said “Autry O.V. was too cumbersome a name for such a small boy. In Appalachia, we would say a name like that and a sore toe would kill a child.” So, Pete it was.

His mother told him he was precocious and determined, qualities that certainly helped get him where he is today. As a toddler he had the odd habit of biting his bulldog, Tony, and his mother’s mop handles when Tony wasn’t available. Thankfully, he outgrew the biting part, but the scrappiness stayed with him.

When he was old enough to be sent off to the store on his own, he was regularly admonished not to buy any candy. And while he minded on that score, he had a weakness for Gordon’s Potato Chips and regularly conspired to get away with buying a bag when he could. He once told his mother “No I ain’t got no candy. I got a damn poke of dollars!” He’s got a sight more than a poke these days.

The product that started it all, Pete DeBusk’s cast boot and patent

DeBusk loves sports, playing baseball and basketball, the latter helping pay for college at Lincoln Memorial University where he earned his degree in biology. He always worked, even as a child, carrying newspapers, chopping kindling to sell for movie money, faking his age and operating heavy equipment. His years straight out of college were spent mostly working in pharmaceutical and medical equipment sales.

He had a mind for figuring things out, making things better. So, he got to tinkering with making a protective, walkable boot for fiber and plaster leg casts. And thus, the first patented orthopedic cast boot was born, and what would eventually grow into DeRoyal Industries was on its way.

The company is now a global producer of medical supplies far beyond Pete’s first boot, with five manufacturing/warehouse operations in East Tennessee and divisions in Ireland, Guatemala, Costa Rica and Dominican Republic, and providing services in 70 countries. DeRoyal even has a division back in DeBusk’s hometown of Rose Hill. Appropriate from a man who never forgot his roots, but was determined to succeed and thrive instead of scrap and survive.

DeRoyal today
While there will not be a public party celebrating 50 years of DeRoyal, Chief Administrative Officer Rebecca Harmon said the focus will be on the company’s employees, with a different theme on Monday each week in August: DeRoyal Blue Out, 1970s party, 50 hours of philanthropy, and finally a birthday cake party. For the 50 hours of philanthropy, each location is choosing a cause to support. The Powell location is sponsoring one of the play areas at the new Angora Frog Farm.

“We’re celebrating our employees,” Harmon said, adding that there will be opportunities for food trucks, games and prizes. “They are the heart of the company.”

Brian DeBusk, president and chief executive officer, said producing quality products and finding innovative solutions was a core tenant for DeRoyal, and the company would continue in the “same entrepreneurial spirit” in which his father started it.

“Over the last 50 years, we have seen a lot of changes and growth, but one constant is the work ethic and loyalty of our employees,” he said. “We could not be more proud to celebrate this milestone with them and we look forward to continued growth for many years to come.”

Bill Pittman of Pittman Properties had a long career at DeRoyal, also serving as president and CEO. He had this to say about his former employer:

“I first met Pete DeBusk in 1980 while still in high school while working at St. Mary’s Medical Center and reached back out to him my junior year of college … little did I know how Pete and DeRoyal would come to be such a huge part of my life over the next 32 years. Opportunity led me to interview with Pete, but it was his interest in new products and technologies that intrigued me. At one point, we were launching a new product every six weeks. DeRoyal has succeeded and thrived due to an unwavering commitment not only to its customers but all its stakeholders. I wish DeRoyal and the DeBusk family many more decades of success.”

Beth Kinnane is the community news editor for

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