The Crozet Volunteer Fire Department’s annual awards dinner, typically festive, began in a somber note when the volunteers gathered at King Family Vineyard’s banquet hall Oct. 18. They had buried longtime volunteer Richard Martin few hours before and the agony of grief was too present to overcome. Martin was buried at Hillsboro Cemetery and the department brought its ladder truck out and parked it outside the cemetery fence along Rt. 250 near Brownsville Market. Their giant American flag was suspended from the extended ladder and draped over the scene. Its listless wave seemed mournful.
The Crozet volunteers conduct the funerals of their dead with dignity and ceremony and Martin’s had fallen on the same day as their big celebration.
“It’s been a long day,” said Chief Preston Gentry as he formally convened the evening. He thanked Judy Schmertzler for taking care of the preparations.
“We’d like to thank all of you who make Crozet such a great community,” added CVFD President Rodney Rich. The general moment of gratitude for each other, for the unremarked-on sacrifices that so many make, just ordinarily, was palpable and keen.
After greeting guests, among them visitors from other departments and county fire officials, Gentry introduced the evening’s speaker, retired Charlottesville fire chief Julian Taliaferro. Taliaferro described the changes in local firefighting prowess since he first signed on in 1962, a 50-year career.
Taliaferro’s first post was at the then-new Bypass Station on Rt. 250. “I waited six weeks for my first call,” he recalled. “I worked 84 hours a week. We’d get 35 volunteers per call then. You could stomp out a fire with all those people. By the 1990s you’d get three volunteers to show up.
“Training was on-the-job and technique was poor in the city. We needed to put larger volumes of water on fires. A fire in Glenaire, in Ivy, changed the way the city worked. Crozet fought it too and suppressed it with a small supply.” The city took a lesson.
“A bad insurance assessment in the early 1970s led to a service reorganization and to improvements in firefighting,” he said. “It led to cooperation with Crozet and Scottsville, the only other departments then. We did more cooperative training. It was a lot of effort by the volunteers and the career people. Now our area has some of the best equipment in the USA and we have the support of our community.”
When Taliaferro concluded and the awards were about to begin, Gary Dillon called from his seat for a story about chief Gentry. He wanted Gentry to tell the story of how he got the nickname “Slick.”
“I can’t tell that story,” answered Gentry, with his usual geniality.
“One thing I’ve learned,” he said, veering to a different topic, “is adapt and overcome. I learned that again today.” He alluded to the moment Martin’s casket had been lowered.
Gentry called the department’s honor guard forward and they solemnly carried flags and fire axes in parade formation down the aisle between the tables. Gentry read aloud the names of life members who died in the last year: Cary Crickenberger, D.W. Sandridge, Alvin Toms.
“Richard Martin could be the most aggravating, loving person—he was a big bear. If you needed anything, he would be there.” Emotion obliged Gentry to stop.
The fire bell was rung five times for each name in loud, brassy clangs that filled the silent room. “Let us not forget our brothers and sisters who have gone on and when we make decisions, let’s think about what they would want,” Gentry said.
He called on the active members who were present to stand. About 25 men rose. “These are the gentlemen who protect our community,” he said. “We put our lives on the line because we want to serve our community.”
General Assembly Delegate Steve Landes came to the podium to read a resolution passed by the Virginia legislature in honor of Bubba Baber, a former CVFD chief and a Western Albemarle Rescue Squad volunteer as well, who died young, from cancer, in 2014. The resolution remarked on Baber’s “courageous dedication” as a fourth-generation firefighter in Crozet and for the admiration he inspired as “a selfless leader.”
“Many people forget that when you go out you are literally putting your lives on the line,” Landes said.
There was sustained applause for the recognition. Gentry commented that he thought Baber was listening to it.
A Community Service Award was presented to Walt Davis, the pastor of Life Journey Church, who is now also the chaplain for the department. He had presided over Martin’s funeral. Gentry noted that the church gave away thousands of bottles of water, free, at the Crozet Fourth of July celebration.
A second Community Service Award went to Kathy Wood, the owner of Otto’s. “She loves this community and she does a lot for it.”
Deputy Chief Will Schmertzler, who has served 18 years now, presented a third Community Service Award to King Family Vineyards, the banquet’s host for the fourth year. Banquets were previously held in the truck bays of the firehouse.
A fourth Community Service Award went to the Women’s Society of Crozet United Methodist Church.
Rich conferred the President’s Award on the volunteers generally. “You give 100 percent and if you lose you never accept defeat,” he said. “This is for all the volunteers who give their best. We’ll hang in in the kitchen and when we look at it we can ask ourselves if we earned it. We’ll know in our hearts if we have.”
Gentry said that in deciding on the Chief’s Award he asks himself, ‘Who gets along? Who gives extra? How active are they? How hard do they work?’ These two individuals step up: Alise Linquist and Mitch Fitzgerald.” Linquist is a new volunteer and Fitzgerald has now risen to the rank of captain. “He really moves things forward,” Gentry commented.
He called Mike Boyle, the winner of the Firefighter of the Year Award in 2013 and 2014, to the podium. “He’s from Louisiana,” said Gentry. “Don’t send him out in a snow storm. We love him. What would we do without him!” Meanwhile, Boyle has gone ‘career’ and taken a job with the Waynesboro Fire Department.
Boyle came forward to present this year’s top award.
“I’m not a public spoken kind of guy,” Boyle began. “I hate to be in front of a crowd. It’s been an honor to receive this award for the last two years and to hear, ‘That guy, he gives 110 percent!’
“This week has been a hard week. Dick Martin was like a father to me. It’s a great honor to be called his son.”
Handed the trophy to present, Boyle quipped, “That dude’s worthless.” Then he turned earnest. “He steps up and he never fusses,” said Boyle. “It a great pleasure: Mike Rabin.”
Rabin, an airline pilot who is often away from home, accepted and thanked his wife for supporting him as a firefighter.
“It’s been a pleasure to know everyone in the department,” he said. “I am truly honored and I look forward to continuing my service with you fine people.”
“It takes a team,” Gentry reminded the crowd as the awards wrapped up. “It’s not just one or two individuals.”