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Longtime Leitersburg fire chaplain takes one last nostalgic ride

June 23, 2008|By HEATHER KEELS

LEITERSBURG - More than 30 years after fighting his last fire, one of the founding members of the Leitersburg Volunteer Fire Co. climbed aboard a firetruck Sunday for a nostalgic ride around the block.

"Yep, this brings back memories," said Robert W. Blair, 83, who was a driver for the company for 15 years and still serves as its chaplain.

Of course, many things have changed since Blair's firefighting days, including the trucks. When the company was founded in 1956, it purchased a used 1936 Chevrolet pumper from the Blue Ridge Fire Co. Blair also remembers driving a 1944 Hahn tanker and a 1963 Chevrolet Howe pumper.

Sunday, Chief Kirk Mongan took Blair for a spin in a shiny Grumman Pumper that can pump 1,500 gallons per minute. Purchased in 1991, it is the oldest of the company's six current vehicles, Mongan said.

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"Automatic transmission?" Blair asked appreciatively through the microphone on his headset.

"Yep," the chief replied.

"When I drove, I had to go through all those gears," Blair recalled after the ride.

The old trucks didn't offer as much in the way of passenger restraints, either, Blair said.

"I went to a fire one time, I had three firemen on the back of the truck," he said, chuckling. "By the time I got there, I had no firemen. I was going too fast over a bridge."

Blair, a World War II veteran, moved to Leitersburg after the war. He had firefighting experience as part of his job as a correctional officer, so he eagerly signed up when the town's Ruritan Club began organizing a local fire company.

"I used to lay in bed and wait for the alarm to go off," Blair said. "I wanted to go."

Blair had the honor of being one of three firefighters to respond to the company's first alarm, a burning chicken house on Leitersburg-Smithsburg Road.

The firefighters prevented serious damage to the property, but there were still some kinks to work out.

"We didn't have a lot of experience," Blair said. "I drowned the chickens before we put the fire out."

Today, Blair remains active in the fire company and boasts that he has missed only one company meeting in its history. As chaplain, he sends cards to sick firefighters and prays for the company's welfare. He also keeps busy visiting disabled veterans in nursing homes and VA hospitals.

Still, sometimes he misses playing a more active role.

"I see the boys rolling down the road and I wish I was on that truck to help them," Blair said.

Scanning a framed black-and-white portrait of the company's charter members, Blair's finger quivers as it hovers over the familiar faces.

"There's only one, two, three living," he says sadly. "I'm a fourth."

Company president Butch Bloom said Blair and four other charter members were awarded Governor's Citations last year for 51 years of service.

In an era when volunteer firefighters are becoming harder to recruit and even harder to retain, Mongan said he hopes current firefighters will look to Blair's continued service as inspiration.

"That's quite a benchmark," Mongan said. "They think, 'If he can still do it 50 years from now, then hopefully I can, too.'"

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