Retired assistant chief Norman Walker can remember the days when the Raleigh Fire Department had just six stations and fewer than 100 people.
He joined the department in 1951, at age 21, and back then, he knew everyone.
Today, the department has 27 stations and nearly 600 positions. Walker marvels at the new equipment and all of the people. A lot has changed, he said, but one thing is still the same: the close ties between the members of the department.
“It’s a big family,” Walker said.
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On Wednesday, nearly 150 retired firefighters gathered to keep those connections strong. Over a lunch of chicken and rice, they caught up on each other’s news, swapped stories and offered some friendly advice to the city’s current firefighters.
The Raleigh Professional Fire Fighters Association sponsors the luncheon, which took place in a white tent behind the department’s training center with the attendees seated shoulder to shoulder at long tables. Active members of the department volunteered to cook, and current recruits served the meal.
“It makes all the retirees feel like we’re part of it – which we are,” said retired chief Jonny Sandy. “We’re the building blocks.”
About 400 members of the fire department have retired since 1949.
Eric Godwin helped with the luncheon last year as a recruit and volunteered to help cook this year. He gets to hear some good stories and match faces to the names he’s heard in others. Most importantly, it’s a chance “to give back to what they started,” Godwin said.
This year’s luncheon coincided with the release of a limited-edition book that commemorates the department’s 100th anniversary, a milestone it reached in 2012. The book, “A Century of Service,” traces the department’s history from a three-station operation through today, with hundreds of profiles of department members and 2,100 images.
As the luncheon ended, Jan Parker gathered together the men who were chiefs when the department hired her and seven other women as the city’s first female firefighters in 1978. They posed for pictures and laughed at how dumbstruck some residents were when they first saw women in uniform.
Parker, who also is retired from the department, said that she looks forward to seeing the chiefs, and finding out how they’re doing as some of them reach their 80s.
“It’s an inspiration,” she said.