Friday, February 15, 2013

TOP STORY >> Longtime fire chief retires

Leader staff writer

Chief John Vanderhoof will say goodbye to the Jacksonville Fire Department next Friday after being there most of his life.

The chief will leave just shy of 43 years of service and the last 15 as the chief. The official record says 42 years and 10 months; the chief says it has been for a lifetime.

“Even before I was officially with the fire department, I was always at the fire department with my dad. My dad worked his way up to assistant fire chief and was with it when it was an ordnance plant fire department and then stayed when the city took over,” the chief said.

“I spent a lot of days and nights here as a youngster and teen,” he added. “I usually spent Saturday night at the station and then came home Sunday with my dad in time for church and then fried chicken.”

The chief joined the department as a firefighter on May 15, 1970, after joining the Marine Corps.

Vanderhoof really had no plans to be a firefighter. “I did a stint in the Marines, got out in February and was still looking for something to do.”

“I actually had an interview that day with Remington. They were just started up. But a few days earlier I stopped by the station and asked Chief (Wayman) Schmitt and Wilbur Smart what it would take to be a firefighter. They said show up here instead of Remington on the 15th, and that’s what I did.”

City records show him as a temporary firefighter for one month, before he took and passed the civil service test.

It didn’t take long for the future chief to figure out what his dad had known — that firefighter was not a job, not a career, but a lifestyle.

During his almost 43-year stint, he never took a sick day. “Were there days I was sick? Yes, and I had to be literally carried onto the truck.”

He recalls one day Chief Smart made him go home. “I had the mumps, but I made that day up later,” Venderhoof said.

“Back then, there was nothing like getting on the back of engine’s tailboard and seeing that fire and knowing that we were doing good. It was a sense of pride that I still have today,” the chief said.

He added, “We were more aggressive back then. We didn’t have all the safety equipment and health knowledge that we do now. We’d arrive, rush in, fight the fire and come out hacking and blowing soot out of our noses.”

The chief said in a college English class he took after he joined the department he had to write a descriptive paper. “Naturally, I wrote about the adrenalin and the rush and the pride of going to my first fire,” Vanderhoof said.

It certainly wasn’t about the pay — back then it was $325 a month, plus a $50 clothing allowance,now, starting pay is now $2,815 a month. Another way to look at it, the chief started at $1.35 an hour, compared to today’s rate of $11.73. When Vanderhoof started with the fire department, there were only 15 firefighters and now there are 65.

The chief had originally planned to retiree in May, but moved it up. “I love to fish and the crappie will be spawning soon and I want to be there,” he said.

“I’ve been here my whole life and now it’s just time for me. I’m 65 and want to enjoy whatever time I have left with my wife and family and fishing. My wife wants us to travel and we like antiquing and will do more of it,” the chief said.

He spent most of the week telling each fire shift about his decision.

Vanderhoof said the department would be in excellent hands.

“The people under me, the battalion chiefs, have all been trained to do my job and any one of them will do it well. It’s been a wonderful career, but now it’s time do something different.” the chief said.

Vanderhoof is proud of his 15 years at the helm of the department. “The key is to have a vision, then planning comes into place. Does it happen overnight, no, but it does get done.”

He cited as an example the recently opened state-of-the-art public safety training facility off Marshall Road.

“I first envisioned that in 2000, and it’s taken 13 years to come to fruition. At first we looked at land across from Fire Station No. 1 (on Redmond Road), then the old sewer plant, before getting land for it on the old Vertac site,” the chief explained.

He added that it took a lot of work and the support of the people to get it done.

In his career the chief has done everything from hoseman to engineer to cook to CPR and mouth-to-mouth. He has no idea how many lives he’s saved. “You didn’t think about that, you just did the job the best you could.”

About the cooking — he was the chief cook on his shift for a number of years. “They just liked my cooking. Nothing fancy. If I had my choice it would be beans, fried ‘tators and corn bread,” he said.

The roles are reversed at home. “I like to cook, and do sometimes, but mostly my wife cooks, and I clean up. We make a pretty good team.”

Vanderhoof has outlasted three mayors, working on his fourth. When the chief started in 1970, it was Mayor John Harden welcoming him to the fold. He was promoted to driver in 1976 and received a $15 pay raise, going from $700 a month to $715. A little over a year later he became captain and was shaking hands with Mayor James Reid. When Vanderhoof became shift commander, now called battalion chief, in 1993, Tommy Swaim was mayor, and it’ll be Mayor Gary Fletcher signing off on the chief’s retirement paperwork.

“My wife retired a year ago and she’s ready to travel. We’ll probably visit out west and into New England, but only when I’m not fishing or visiting the stations,” the chief said.

He doesn’t look upon his departure as retiring. “I’m having the privilege of joining the elites — those chiefs and great firefighters that have retired before me. They live on in the firefighters’ memories and we look back at what they have done to help create this great fire department of ours.”

Speaking of memories, the chief took a look back in the departments’ logs, which date back to the end of World War II, and looked up the November day he was born in 1947. “And there it is, my dad’s name with a notice by the chief that he was out for family illness; that was me being born.”

For the chief, 2012 was a tough year that may have hastened his retirement. He lost an on-duty firefighter — the first for the department — when a driver purposely swerved to hit first responders working an accident. He also had to deal with the smoke inhalation death of a mom and her four children. Both incidents happened in March.

“But it was also the year that we achieved a Class 2 fire rating. That took a lot of effort and a number of years to achieve.”

What will the chief not miss?

Probably the paperwork work. “The job is essential the same, but the paperwork is now massive. When I first started it was a ledger with the names of who was on duty and what fires occurred.”

Fletcher said Vanderhoof is a visionary. “He had and has great ideas for the department and city. He will leave a legacy.”

Fletcher went on to say that “Vanderhoof did not just fill the position of chief, but lived and expanded it. He will be hard to replace. He has a great, strong work ethic that he has passed on to the department and to his family. Our 911 director, Tabby Hughes, is his daughter and she has that same work ethic.”

The mayor added that Vanderhoof has had a positive, dramatic impact on the department.