Terminally Ill, West Virginia Firefighter Made Chief

Louis Dale "Sonny" Farthing has battled fires and provided a shoulder to cry on when countless residents lost loved ones.

As Farthing faces his final days, scores of friends, family and fellow firefighters - some of whom are total strangers - are working to honor a man many have called a "hometown hero."

Farthing, 61, has endured multiple cancers, including leukemia, and multiple hospital stays since November, according to his twin sister, Linda Hill. Because his illness is considered terminal, Farthing has chosen to spend his final days at his Sophia home and with his friends, family and fellow firefighters.

Farthing is a Sophia native who began his volunteer firefighting career in 1972, said Jeff Pittman, fellow firefighter and former Sophia City Volunteer Fire Department chief. For five years, he would work for the Sophia Area VFD, but he moved to the city's own department when it formed in 1977. He has remained a member ever since.

"He's always been the right-hand man to every chief," Pittman said. "He was a link to every guy at the fire department."

For 20 years, Farthing was a sergeant, and he spent two years as a lieutenant, Pittman said. He became a deputy assistant chief in December 2007. On April 8, Chief William Simon relinquished his position and Farthing took his spot.

"It's always been a dream of mine to be chief," Farthing said.

Because of his physical condition, Farthing can no longer go on fire calls. But Pittman said he follows every call via department radio - as 1200, the Sophia City chief's call sign - with the firefighters now under his command briefing him on their progress.

Several years ago, Farthing and two others were the only three firefighters in town when a gas station on the town's west end caught fire, Pittman said. The blaze was extinguished in about an hour or less, but it was nonetheless frightening.

"I thought to myself, There's too much gas here," Farthing said. "It was. We had a car out back that had even more gas in it."

Firefighting, Pittman noted, involves so much more than extinguishing blazes. Volunteer firefighters must handle vehicle accidents and gas leaks, to name a few. Farthing has scaled trees to rescue stranded cats, chased loose horses on highways and helped wrangle truckloads of pigs and cattle that spilled onto Interstate 64.

"One cat tried to bite me," Farthing quipped.

Between fire calls, Pittman said, Farthing has been in charge of the fire department building, cleaning trucks and showing junior firefighters how to do it properly. In fact, Farthing, who is believed to have amassed about 1,000 training hours during his career, is a mentor to the younger firefighters.

"We had a younger guy, on his first fire, go around smoke he shouldn't have been near," Pittman said. "We said, "The chief wants to see you, and sent him to Sonny's apartment. Sonny called him on the carpet, but that's because he's been in those situations."

Some people become frustrated at what seems to be endless red tape in government. Farthing, however, had the state's chief executive personally take care of his needs - immediately.

Pittman recalled a trip to the state Capitol for Firefighters' Day during the legislative session. Farthing has always ensured the state flag above the fire department was in good condition, and at the time, a new one was needed. That day at the Capitol, he intended to personally ask then-Gov. Gaston Caperton for a flag.

"He goes up toward the governor, and two state troopers were ready to get him because they thought he was charging the governor," Pittman said. "Caperton says, Whoa, whoa, whoa! This man is a friend of mine." Sonny told him he wanted a flag. Caperton looked at one of his aides and said, "Get this man a flag."

But Farthing's other work has allowed him to help even more people in need - and at their darkest hours.

Hill said Farthing has worked for Williams-Blue Ridge Funeral Home in Sophia about 32 years, with the business even giving him an apartment near downtown. At the funeral home, he has assisted during services, helped get cars parked and cleaned the building.

"Some people have even requested Sonny," Hill said. "So many people have known him their whole lives because of his help at funerals."

Hill, a Pennsylvania resident, as well as two other sisters, Cleveland resident Sharon Graziolli and Alabama resident Dorothy Bedingfield, and brother-in-law Bob Bedingfield gathered at Farthing's apartment Friday. Hill showed her brother's countless plaques and firefighter memorabilia that practically filled his small apartment. She was in awe.

"I had no idea our brother had done so much," she said. "We dearly love him, and look at what he has done and accomplished."

"He loves (firefighting). You can see the shine in his eyes, especially when he gets to train the younger ones. The kids tell him they will always remember him and that he will never be gone. They've told him, "Every time we go to a fire, stay with us. Look out for us like a guardian angel."

Friday morning, State Fire Marshal Sterling Lewis made Farthing a deputy state fire marshal, Pittman said. But the firefighters who have reached out and have created special honors for him are literally spread from California to New York.

Pittman said Farthing met a FDNY ladder company member from Staten Island at a past emergency services conference at Pipestem. He explained FDNY has a "ride-along" list, and ride-alongs are assigned positions on the truck. The night of April 10, Farthing was put on FDNY's official log of ride-alongs and given the officer's position.

Numerous people have sent e-mails to Sonny at chiefsonny@pittmangrafix.com, which Pittman reads to him every day.

"This isn't being done just for embellishment or just because he's sick," Pittman said. "He has deserved every one of them."

Knowing they are likely to soon lose such an integral part of the fire department has taken its toll on Farthing's fellow firefighters, Pittman said.

"When Sterling deputized him over the radio, I tried to tell my wife and I was unable to tell her," he said. "Firefighting has this great brotherhood. We'll all watch "Ladder 49" or "Backdraft" or hear about another firefighter lost in the line of duty and tear up. But it's even harder when someone you know is dealing with a terminal illness."

Farthing has made plans for his own funeral, Pittman said, but his fellow firefighters - from across Raleigh County - wanted to show him how he will be honored while he is still living. When he arrived home from the hospital, an estimated 50 firefighters and numerous fire engines were gathered outside. All firefighters saluted the chief.

"That's the love he has in the firefighting community," Pittman said.