'Gene Chafin IS the fire department'; Berryville unit he led turns 100 Saturday

Friday, August 24, 2012
Gene Chafin led the fire department for 35 years and retired in 2009.

BERRYVILLE -- The Berryville Fire Department will turn 100 this Saturday, but when the fair parade careens through downtown, don't expect Gene Chafin to wave regally from the upholstered seat of an antique fire engine. He would never agree to that.

It would be a fitting tribute, though, because for more than a third of the department's history, Chafin was in the proverbial driver's seat. He was a volunteer for 45 years and fire chief for 35. He drove the department into the 21st century and won the respect and admiration of those who rode alongside.

If you ask them what type of man Chafin is, they won't hesitate to tell you.

On a recent afternoon, a few officers gathered in the Chafin Station in Berryville. The fire house was dedicated to Chafin in 2009, just months before he retired.

The men described a dedicated public servant who led by example and gave the same respect to all his volunteers, whether veteran or rookie.

"Gene Chafin is the fire department," Deputy Chief Danny High said. "He is the most dedicated man I have ever known in my life. ... I could count on one hand the fires that he missed."

High said Chafin was known to sweep the floors, clean the bathrooms, and even lug the garbage out as chief.

"He's just top-shelf," Capt. Levi Phillips said. "If you went up to the best bar and said, 'I want your finest whiskey,' they'd take it off the shelf, and the label would say 'Gene Chafin.'"

Both men served with Chafin for 36 years. Captain Mike Jones, who sat nearby, had not been on the department as long, but was just as devoted to his former chief.

"He's just one of the most generous, nicest men I've ever known," he said. "You did your best because you wanted to make him happy."

A day before, Chafin had sat in the station lobby, wearing blue jeans and cowboy boots. White hair peeked out from under a tan baseball cap, and his quiet, jovial eyes stared from behind bridge-nosed glasses. His arms were darkened and the toes of his cowboy boots raw from years of labor on his farm.

A native of Berryville, he was not the first Chafin to have his name inscribed on a fire house.

His father, a man with the unlikely name of "Fate," was a grocer by trade, but he was also mayor for years. When Berryville's last fire station was built, in 1965, Fate Chafin's name was etched on the cornerstone.

The younger Chafin saved the stone from the trash heap when the building was renovated, and it now sits proudly in the lobby of the new station, encased in wood.

In addition to being mayor, the elder Chafin served on the school board. When his son returned from college, he gave him a job at his grocery store. He also resigned his position on the board, so that his new daughter-in-law could get a job as a teacher.

Soon, Chafin's brother-in-law came to him with a proposition. The man was a firefighter, and asked Chafin to consider joining the department.

"I said, 'Eh, I don't know. I'll think about it,' " he remembered. "Anyway, they finally talked me into joining."

At the time, the department was housed in the old courthouse building. "We had a little one-hole deal there," Chafin said. "We had three trucks, and there was just room to back the trucks in there. You almost had to crawl over the fenders to get in."

For years, the only fire alert system was a whistle on the water tower near the station. Ms. Emmit, who ran the Grandview Hotel, acted as dispatcher.

When she received a call, she would flip a switch to sound the alarm.

"We'd hear the fire whistle," Chafin said, "and we'd have to go down to the fire station and call her and ask her, 'Miss Emmit, where's the fire at?'"

"Well, you know, poor folks have poor ways," he said, "and we were pretty poor back then. ... Until the City was allowed to pass a sales tax (in the 1980's), we didn't hardly have any money at all." There was no training and little equipment.

"All we had (to fight grass fires) was burlap sacks," he said. "We'd wet the sack and go around and try to beat it out."

The department elected Chafin chief in 1974. It was a distinction he did not ask for, he said, but he thought "well, I'll try it for a little while. If it don't work out, somebody else can have it."

It worked out, but it wasn't always easy. Chafin had to balance his firefighting with career and family.

"When the whistle went off, most of the time, I could always take off," he said. "What makes it rough is these guys who are self-employed. ... Those guys, they're out here on a fire, and they might be out here all day. They're not drawing any money, see. That's what makes it tough."

The work can also be hard on families.

"It causes problems," Chafin said. "I mean, you can have your wife out to eat and all of a sudden, the tone goes off, and the next thing you know, you're out the door, and your wife's sittin' there wondering, 'How in the hell am I gonna get home,'"

This has happened to Chafin more than once. The younger men at the fire station still ask Leone Chafin to tell the story of how she stood for hours outside a closed Mexican restaurant, in the dark, without a car or house keys, while her husband fought a fire.

"It makes it hard on a family," he said. "I know my family -- sometimes we'd get ready to go somewhere, and I'd think, 'Well, it's a holiday, and we haven't got many firemen that's gonna be here. Maybe we ought to just stay home.' Things like that, you know -- People don't really realize what goes on."

Fighting fires is also hard on the volunteers themselves. There are the inevitable aches and pains, and the risk of more serious injury, but Chafin said the emotional toll was worse.

Though Chafin never lost any firefighters in the line of duty, he lost others.

"The worst fires are the ones where you got to go in and recover a body," he said. He could recall about ten.

"One place it was two kids," he said. "I'd say it doesn't happen often, but when it does, it's tough, especially when there's kids."

Chafin retired in 2009.

"This is a young man's game. It's not an old man's game," he said. "When you get out here, and you can't get your boots on without someone helping you, you know it's time to get off."

He said he didn't miss being awakened at 2 a.m. by a fire alarm, though he does miss the camaraderie.

"It's kinda like a brotherhood," he said. "Everyone kinda supports everybody else, and that's the thing I miss the most about it -- is not being over here and being among the guys."

When he left, Chafin passed the baton on to Chief Doug Johnson, who will follow him into retirement next year, after 40 years of service. Then it will be another's turn to lead.

Chafin spends most of his days on the farm now, raising cattle. This year has been an especially hard one, he said, and he doesn't often get away from the farm.

However, he still finds time to visit his fire house. Johnson said he comes by often. The fire fighters have taken to calling him "rookie," because he's always skulking around the station.

Johnson said he understood, though. "Once you're a fireman, you just -- you can't get it out of your blood," he said. Besides, the firemen like having "rookie" around.

Chafin said he enjoys bass fishing, though he hasn't lately had the time. "It seems like I never get time to do that anymore," he said. But he keeps his bass boat parked in the station, beside the fire engines -- just in case.

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  • All that, and you STILL look like Conway Twitty! xo

    -- Posted by carolrichards on Sun, Aug 26, 2012, at 2:25 PM
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