“We give thanks for the sacrifices of the volunteers in their service to the western Albemarle community,” said new Crozet Volunteer Fire Department chaplain Walt Davis to call together the CVFD’s annual awards dinner at King Family Vineyards Nov. 23.
And in the crowded hall where stood the families who know directly what the costs are, there answered a solemn “Amen.”
“Honor and tradition means a lot to a fire department,” began CVFD Chief Preston Gentry. “Take pride in your department,” he urged, surveying tables studded with dress blue uniforms. The CVFD is now in its 103rd year. It has 55 members and in 2014 is on a pace to answer at least 500 calls.
“We’re going through a lot of changes.” He was referring to diplomatic relations with county fire officials. “We need to move forward at a pace that is comfortable for our members. And we have a commitment to our families, too.”
He introduced “a guest speaker,” Tom Labelle, a division chief for Albemarle County Fire and Rescue, whose portfolio includes volunteers. Formerly head of New York state’s association of volunteer fire departments, he has worked in professional firehouses too. He has settled in Crozet. “He’s a Yankee,” said Gentry, “but he’s very good one. He is doing a good job for the volunteers.”
Labelle called to mind the Plymouth pilgrims, so needy and so far from home. “So, everybody has to help. That’s what it’s like in the CVFD. When people need us, they need us completely and immediately,” said Labelle. “They are thankful. And I say, as a new resident of Crozet, thank you to you.
“Thank you also to the family members who wait at home while we are on duty.” He asked family members to stand. They paused and looked around the room while Labelle retired to his chair next to White Hall District Supervisor Ann Mallek.
Gentry announced new board appointments: Gary Dillon, Pete Oprandy and Tom Loach, all veterans and proven men. Each is on for a three-year term.
In an aside from the program, Gentry said he has checked off a bucket list item: he climbed to the site of the 1959 DC-3 crash above Crozet that killed 25 and left one survivor. “I went up there, and I have made two trips now—my first and my last. It’s eerie to be there. The spirits are still there.” The crash scene was a shockingly gruesome experience for the CVFD men who first reached it.
A shout out went to Chris Rowlin, who is back with the CVFD. He had been serving as a lieutenant in Afghanistan.
Gentry called forward the CVFD Honor Guard and a ceremonial fire bell was rung in honor of five souls connected to the department who had died during the year, notably among them Bubba Baber, who had a long run as chief.
“These members have gone home,” said Gentry, “But they will always be remembered and be with us.”
A CVFD Community Service Award went to the Crozet Baptist Church Women.
“They were there when Bubba passed. You could not ask for better than the service they give the community.”
A second award went to Mountainside Grill. “They are tremendous to us!” said Gentry.
A final award went to Arnold Van Ness, who is commonly known by his nickname “Tweezer.” “He is the most faithful elf Santa has,” declared Gentry.
Next, Jerry Finazzo of Sal’s Pizza was made an honorary member of the department. “When we come in and see you making pizza, we want to see you wearing this helmet,” said Gentry. Once put on, the massive helmet teetered on Finazzo’s head, submerging him.
CVFD President Rodney Rich announced the President’s Award, explaining, “We do what we do because it’s in our heart.” He called out, “Butch Snead.”
Back in command of the podium, Gentry conferred the Chief’s Award. “Whatever he’s asked to do, he’s there to do it. He’s very dedicated to the fire service. And he’s always in a good mood.” Gentry called Rodney Rich Jr. forward.
The Open Door Award, a tease and spoof award, was bestowed on Mitch Fitzgerald, who had the bad luck to leave an engine’s side door up as he pulled out of the firehouse on a call. The dinged-up door was marched in and left by his table. Fitzgerald preferred to look down, but he shouldered the blame. Next time, he won’t be the one.
Gentry confessed that he nearly ran into a new glass bay door, stopping inches short of harm.
Then came the culminating award, Firefighter of the Year, which is chosen by the membership.
“He’s one of the hardest workers in our community,” began Gentry. “He doesn’t mind jumping into poop. I can ask him for anything. He has volunteer service in his blood. He loves all the guys. At a fire, he’s right with you and he’s not going to leave you. . . .
“Michael Boyle,” he said.
Boyle was also named Firefighter of the Year last year. He is a rare man.