From "The Burlington Free Free Press"


Vergennes fire chief celebrates 50 years

By Adam Silverman
Free Press Staff Writer

VERGENNES -- Fifty years has brought plenty of change to the City of Vergennes Fire Department. A new station was built. The number of firefighters doubled. The number of vehicles tripled. The budget has more than quadrupled.

But through it all, one thing has remained the same: the department's chief.

Ralph Jackman became chief Dec. 1, 1954, eight years after joining the small Addison County city's department as a firefighter. He has been at the helm ever since -- among the longest-serving and oldest fire chiefs in the country, Jackman's deputy said -- and continues to manage the volunteer department's affairs and paperwork and respond to calls, although he gave up battling blazes some years ago.

Jackman, married with five daughters, stays on the job because of the people, he said.

"I've got a great department," the chief said Sunday as he sat in a meeting room in the spacious downtown firehouse, which he'd already set up for the weekly Monday gathering of members. "Everything has been challenging. It's a challenge to see how things go. It's a challenge to see how men work together. And things have just seemed to get better and better.

"Being chief is just a privilege and an honor."

Jackman's long tenure has left him with many stories. He remembers driving his own car to an August 1948 barn fire, speeding along behind the fire engine, when calamity struck. An oncoming car smashed into the engine, and firefighter Lee Schroder was thrown to his death. It was the only firefighter fatality in the department's history.

Ask Jackman his most memorable fire, and he doesn't hesitate a second. A devastating blaze Feb. 24, 1958, destroyed much of downtown Vergennes and caused $500,000 in damage. A gasoline leak ignited by an oil burner in the local hardware store caused an explosion at 1:10 p.m., Jackson recalled. The roiling blaze was barely under control at midnight.

"It was just impossible to even slow it up," the chief said. No one was injured.

Other events were memorable for their whimsy. In the late 1970s the department needed a new firetruck, so Jackman drove to New Jersey and bought one -- even though taxpayers hadn't been asked for their consent yet, the chief remembered. City officials told Jackman to park the truck out of town until voters weighed in.

"I took it down to my daughter's farm and left it there for a few months," Jackman said. He brought it back to the city after taxpayers approved the purchase.

Colleagues and Vergennes officials praised Jackman's service, longevity and dedication. They held a surprise party in his honor Saturday night. About 200 people, including Gov. Jim Douglas and Vergennes Mayor Kitty Oxholm, attended. Sen. Jim Jeffords sent a letter of congratulations.

Oxholm has known Jackman for the 40 years she's lived in town and nearly 10 years she's worked in government, the past four as mayor. She said his achievement is greater than mere staying power.

"It's a total commitment to the fire service that I celebrate," she said. "We trust him and know our residents are going to be protected."

Deputy Chief Jim Larrow said his boss, even at 80, is still in full command of the department, active and always ready to help beyond what's required of him. The department doesn't expect Jackman -- who said he's never even thought about retirement -- to go anywhere anytime soon.

"Until he's gone, he'll be here," Larrow said. "Now we've got to start planning for the 60th."
Congrats to the Chief and Vergennes Fire Department.