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Shepherdstown, W.Va., fire chief steps down

December 28, 1998

Lee MorganBy DAVE McMILLION / Staff Writer, Charles Town

photo: RIC DUGAN / staff photographer




SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. - While soldiers were answering the call to duty at the beginning of World War II, a young D. Lee Morgan was answering the call of his community.

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So many men were called to the war that there were not enough left behind to run the fire department, Morgan remembers.

The 16-year-old Morgan didn't have a driver's license, but that didn't stop him from taking the wheel of the fire engine and heading off to fight fires.

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Morgan said he and four of his classmates used to get called out of school to battle blazes.

"The school principal would call us and say 'Go right quick, there's a fire.' To tell you the truth we were happy to get out of class," said Morgan.

That early firefighting experience was the start of a relationship between Morgan and the fire department that would last more than 50 years.

Now, after 41 years as chief of the department, Morgan, 70, is stepping down.

Although he plans to remain active with the department, Morgan said he believes it is important to give younger officers the chance to be in charge.

Leon Catrow, a long-time member of the department, will become chief on New Year's Day, Morgan said.

Morgan's departure ends a chapter in the department's history, one during which Morgan was credited with making the fire departments one of the best in the region.

Morgan always wanted the best, most up-to-date training for his department. Shepherdstown was the first department in the area to use the 911 emergency number and to have emergency medical technicians. Six years ago, the department tripled its storage and meeting space when it moved into a new building on W.Va. 45, Morgan said.

His dedication to the department is unquestionable, friends say.

People often call Morgan at home to report a problem instead of calling the department, especially if they feel it isn't an emergency, said department member Michael Athey.

"I don't know of an occasion when he would say no," said Athey.

Morgan still carries his fire gear in the trunk of his 1996 Crown Victoria, which has assorted antennas sticking from its exterior and radios inside. He is often the first to arrive at fire scenes.

Morgan also runs D. Lee Morgan Construction Co., and he often told his workers to respond to fires while they were on the job.

Morgan told the workers not to worry about how long it took to fight the fire because their time clock would continue to run, said Cecil Arnold, another member of the department.

"The thousands and thousands (of dollars) he paid out over the years is just amazing. I can't say enough about the man," said Arnold.

Morgan was born in Shepherdstown, and grew up helping his mother on their farm along Ridge Road.

In 1939, a fire destroyed a barn on the farm, and Morgan said his mother was deeply upset about the accident. Morgan said he was impressed by the way Charles W. "Cop" Shipley, the fire chief at the time, consoled his mother and helped her through the ordeal.

That's when Morgan knew he wanted to be a firefighter.

"I realized how important it was to have concern for someone who had a mishap. He did much more than put out a fire. That's what he put into me," said Morgan.

During his years with the department, Morgan has amassed memories, some good, some bad.

Morgan said he was expected to die after breathing toxic fumes from two separate blazes.

He recalled several disasters, like the 1975 fire at the former Miller Chemical Co. in Ranson, W.Va., which claimed the life of a firefighter.

Raymond Hufnagel, a member of the Independent Fire Co. in Ranson, was inside the burning building trying to start a chainsaw so he could cut a hole in the floor and fight the fire in the basement, Morgan said.

But the fire was so intense it had consumed all the oxygen in the building, making it impossible to start the saw, Morgan said.

The floor collapsed and Hufnagel fell through, said Morgan.

"It was a horrible experience for us," said Morgan.

Morgan and his wife Mary Ann have four children, all of whom were active in the fire service. Their youngest son, Ross, is a captain at the fire department.

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