Stihl Dealer Days

Rural Missouri Magazine
The house that Bob built
Former cop's remarkable models launched an international hobby business

by Bob McEowen

Bob begins to paint a model of an Asian hut soon to be released by the VLS Corporation. The former police detective launched the hobby supply business after earning worldwide recognition for his highly detailed models of historic scenes. Bob still builds and paints the company’s products for inclusion in catalog photographs.

There’s an old saying: Don’t sweat the small stuff. But don’t tell that to Bob Letterman. Whether he’s building one of the premier model supply companies in the world or creating masterpiece dioramas of historic scenes, Bob approaches miniatures on a grand scale.

Consider his crowning accomplishment as a model maker: “Twilight of the Third Republic,” a 4-foot by 7-foot model that depicts a German army unit occupying a French village during World War II. The diorama includes dozens of miniature figures of German soldiers, a fleet of cars, trucks, boats and other vehicles, realistic buildings, cobblestone streets and a statue of a rider on horseback.

“This is almost all scratch built. There are no kits involved — the cars, yes, but not the buildings,” says Bob, president of VLS Corporation, which supplies model kits, materials and supplies to hobbyists worldwide.

The display took more than 6,000 hours to build and demonstrates Bob’s incredible attention to detail. A massive bridge has nearly 3,000 tiny rivets on its lifelike girders. Two German soldiers fish by a river. Ripples emanate from one soldier’s bare heel dangling above what appears to be water, but is actually a resin painted to mimic a lazy river.

Bob Letterman points out details on a large diorama he’s building at the VLS Corporation of Moscow Mills. This diorama will eventually include more than 200 figures and model vehicles.

The occupation diorama inspired a book, “Super Dioramas” that VLS published to instruct model makers. It is also one of dozens of Bob’s creations showcased in a museum of model making, housed in a corner of the VLS Corporation’s 35,000-square-foot headquarters and warehouse in Moscow Mills. While the collection houses works from some of the most noted hobbyists around the world, few of the models are as impressive as this former St. Louis City police detective’s grandiose dioramas.

“I’ve never met anyone in the world who does things this big,” says Bob, 64. “There’s other people that are really good but they do small things.”

It was a diorama that first brought Bob to the attention of the worldwide modeling community and launched his business. In 1982 Bob headed the St. Louis Circuit Attorney’s special investigations unit. In his spare time he built elaborate model scenes of World War II events.

When a local hobby shop owner marveled at all the supplies the policeman was buying and asked what he was building, Bob invited him to the house to see his work. The shop owner was amazed at the scale of Bob’s project and encouraged him to enter a competition at the Interna-tional Plastic Modeler’s Society annual meeting — coincidently held in St. Louis that year.

A photograph of Bob’s diorama, “Twighlight of the Third Reich,” reproduced from an instruction book, shows the grand scale and the level of detail involved in his monumental projects. Photo courtesy of VLS Corporation.

Bob, who was unaware that there were model competitions much less societies of modelers, entered his “Winds of War” diorama and won the contest. Articles about the model were published in hobbyist magazines worldwide. Over the next two years Bob won hundreds of awards. He and his wife, Susan, traveled Europe and Asia, attending modeling conventions.

“It was just an amazing thing,” the Cuivre River Electric Cooperative member says of his instant celebrity status in the modeling world. “Of course, no one outside the industry knows or would care.”

It wasn’t the first time Bob had made an impression. When The Saturday Evening Post came to St. Louis to feature street cops in the “crime capital of America,” its writers and photographers rode with a young Officer Letterman. A framed 1968 cover of the magazine hanging on Bob’s VLS office wall bears his youthful portrait.

Bob and his former crime-fighting partner — current St. Louis Chief of Police Joe Mokwa — were practically supercops. The two detectives once boasted 105 felony arrests in a single month, more than the rest of the department combined. Bob was Officer of the Year in 1973.

VLS employee Dee Scarborough boxes a model tank for shipment. The company sells model kits and modeling supplies worldwide.

In 1983, after 23 years on the force, Bob took early retirement from police work and went into the model business full time. He began buying model kits and supplies overseas and brought them home to resell. With $90 from his savings account, Bob ordered business cards and stationary and launched Warwinds Militaria & Hobby, Ltd. Within a year, the business had sales of mor than $1 million.

Bob linked up with Francois Verlinden, a noted model maker, book publisher and hobby shop owner from Belgium. Later, Dutch investor Jos Stok rounded out the trio of modeling entrepreneurs and VLS Corporation was formed.

The company has relocated and expanded numerous times in the intervening two decades. Investor Stok died and Verlinden and Letterman have split. Today’s VLS Corporation employs 20 people and is a huge player in the model industry.

“We may be the best-known company in the world in modeling,” Bob says. “I don’t think there’s a modeler on Earth who doesn’t know who we are and doesn’t know my name.”
The company supplies about 40 smaller distributors, 500 foreign and 800 Ameri-can hobby shops and sells directly to consumers through mail order and a Web site. The VLS catalog lists more than 22,000 products.

Tiny details add realism to models, such as these figures in one of Bob's dioramas. VLS suppllies materials, such as rubble and tiny bricks modelers use to create a scene. Photo by VLS.

Besides importing and distributing models and materials, VLS produces 17 brands of products, many in-house. The company’s Warrior line includes 1/35th scale figures — Roman soldiers, German storm troopers, surrendering Frenchmen and even modern Islamic insurgents. The 135th Construction Battalion brand offers modelers miniature bricks, roofing materials, doors, windows and other details. Hobbyists looking for a German village ruin or a kit to build a complete train station can order from the Custom Dioramics line. Other VLS divisions offer tools, supplies, books and other items the serious modeler requires.

In addition, VLS sponsors an annual convention and competition each Labor Day weekend. MasterCon attracts advanced model makers from around the country who come to compete, tour the VLS facility and meet Bob and his staff.

Surprisingly, few young people attend the event. Unlike 30 years ago, modeling is no longer a popular hobby with children. Instead, the typical customer is someone who enjoyed the hobby years ago and picked it up again later in life.

“Most every guy, when he was young, built a model car, plane or tank. Generally, they stopped when they discovered girls. After they settle down and get married, quite a few come back to it,” says Bob, whose wife, Susan, manages VLS’s day-to-day operations.
Bob says advanced modelers are usually people who enjoy working in extreme detail. Almost without exception, modelers have some interest in history, especially military history.

A tiny head for one of the company’s figurines is held for examination during manufacture. Each figure is carved by a modeler and then reproduced in latex at the VLS facility.

“There isn’t a modeler I know of who hasn’t built something that related to their own historical perspective, something from their family’s point of view,” says David Harper, a model maker who moved from Oregon to join the company as its art director. “Many modelers build models of their grandfather’s tank or their father’s airplane, or even their great-grandfather’s airplane.”

A lot of veterans and active duty military people, it seems, are serious modelers as well. The VLS conference room contains valuable artifacts — including a hat and scarf worn by Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf in the 1991 Gulf War and former Joint Chiefs Chairman Colin Powell’s battle helmet — items sent by modelers with connections to the military brass.

No matter what their interest, advanced modelers are not content to merely follow the instructions in a kit and slap on a little paint, Bob says. Many build models from scratch or modify kits to produce a more realistic representation. As an example, Bob points to a kit model of a Jaguar car he modified.

“If you look inside, it’s upholstered in leather. It has carpeting,” he says. “The horn honks. The windows roll up and down. The wheels turn. All the lights work — headlights, taillights, turn signals, brake lights. Everything works.”

Despite the elaborate attention to detail, Bob dismisses the effort. “There are other guys who can do this — maybe better,” he says.

But no one rivals his monumental projects. “He’s the father of the super diorama,” says Harper, who’s own company, Harper Castings, creates figurines that are sold by VLS. “He’s the only one I’ve ever met who could do those big ones.”

The VLS warehouse in Moscow Mills contains more than 22,000 different items. The company sends model kits, supplies and materials around the world.

Bob is currently working on a diorama that will top anything he’s done before. “Logistics” will depict a Red Ball Express supply convoy meeting up with a column of tanks. The massive diorama will include more than 200 figures and a railroad.

The modeling community is eagerly awaiting Bob’s new creation and the book, “Super Dioramas II,” which will document the work. The project will, no doubt, be good for business and bring renewed attention to Bob, who stopped entering competitions when he started his business. But it’s attention the master modeler takes in stride.

“This is something that just anybody couldn’t walk in and do,” he admits. “But you can’t let something like this go to your head. I’m known for building these little things but, come on, I don’t think that’s like winning a Nobel Prize.”

For more information write VLS Corporation at 1011 Industrial Court, Moscow Mills, MO 63362; call (636) 356-4888 or log onto www.modelmecca.com.

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