Bob Fitzsimmons recently retired as chairman of Quincy Fire Protection District, after a long and dedicated career to Quincy's fire department as a firefighter and commissioner.
For those who haven't lived as long as Fitzsimmons has served with the fire department, it's hard to conceive experiences he's had and the changes he's seen.
Fitzsimmons is more than willing to share, but at the same time is quite self-effacing. After prodding he did admit that, perhaps, after 56 years of service, he may have contributed "in some small ways, yes."
The volunteer fire department of 1954, when Fitzsimmons was 24, looked somewhat different that it does today. He was one of two "sleepers," he said. The two men slept at the firehall every night, to shorten fire response time. His bunk was where the chief's desk is now.
Fitz spent the better part of a year as a sleeper, but then he met his wife, Marty. "We got married in December. I found a better roommate and moved out of the firehall," he said. "She's been right by my side through this whole fire department adventure."
Fitz remembers that in the early days the firefighters had no radios. Instead, there were two sirens-one at the firehouse, on top of the station, the other on top of a pole in East Quincy. It was so loud when it went off, "it raised you right out of bed," Fitz recalled.
The calls came in to the telephone operators who, in those days, were housed in the building Morning Thunder fills now.
The operators set off the fire alarm themselves. They still used an old switchboard, he said. "My number was 798. The drugstore was 2. There've been a lot of changes."
Fitzsimmons fought fires for 18 years. He had to take some time off because of his job. He was a foreman out at the mill, and that "required 99 percent of my time."
It was then that Andy Anderson, Quincy's fire chief of 50 years, asked him to become a fire commissioner. Being a firefighter and commissioner have both been good learning experiences, he said. "I've enjoyed every bit of it. It's not a full-time job, but it's an important job. We're the watchdogs for the fire department," responsible for allocating funds from tax revenues.
The commissioners worked closely with Chief Anderson for many years, and after that with Chief Robbie Cassou. Fitz has the highest praise for both men.
"It's important to have a good working relationship," he said. The chief tells the commissioners what the department needs, and the commissioners decide what the fire district can afford.
Now, in addition to fire-fighting equipment, the department requires safety equipment and clothing. It's a lot safer to be a firefighter these days.
"The only equipment I was issued when I became a fireman was a pair of rubber boots. Later on, we got a helmet," said Fitz.
There would be times he said, when the fire department was having a social function and a fire would break out. The men "would go out in their suits and ties and just do what they had to do."
A couple of memorable fires include the night the Quincy lumber mill, which was where Safeway is now, burned to the ground. It was the night before his daughter was born said Fitz, but he fought that fire.
Another time, he recalls a fireman reaching in through the burning window of a house and pulling a child to safety.
Now, said Fitz, firefighters "have all the safety equipment we can provide for them."
Very early in his tenure, Anderson turned the department into a dynamic team. "He was a very progressive, forward thinking guy, with a dynamic personality. He got the fire department well organized and on the road to success ... he did a marvelous job."
Since then, training and equipment for the rural fire department have been first rate. Fitz proudly believes they're among the best.
Besides the good feeling and adrenaline rush that fighting fires gave him, Fitz said the department has been the source of "a lifetime of friends."
When he moved to town in 1949, the first person he met was Kenny Thomas, who is still a senior fireman. "He's been in longer than anybody. We've been the best of friends ever since."
The network of friendships went far beyond Quincy. Anderson invited a fireman's band he'd heard in Dixon, The Firehouse Philharmonic, up to play in Quincy. That began a 40-year relationship that continues today. Each group still cooks the other's installation dinner.
It's hardly surprising a man so committed to the fire department would have the history of its commissioners for the past 36 years committed to memory - still, it's impressive to hear him relate it.
What makes his task a little easier, though, is that most all of the commissioners served for a long time - a very long time. Most are among that group of lifelong friends he mentioned. All were either firefighters or, in Dorothy Dunn's case, the wife of a firefighter. They include, besides Dunn: Plumie Stokes, Frank Redkey, Carl Lindsey, Mike Nero, Mike Taborski and the newest member, Chuck Leonhardt.
"Everybody stays a long time," Fitz agreed. "They retire or die."
For his part, Fitz "decided it was time," even though others at the fire department have tried to talk him out of it. "There comes a time. I'm still in good health, reasonably so. I don't want to die on the job. It was time to go."
Asked for parting words, Fitz didn't hesitate: "There are many rewards of being commissioner: the friends you make, the people you meet, being able to watch the fire department grow over the years. It's been very rewarding and I'm proud to have been part of it."
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