CHRISTIANSBURG – A long-time member of the Christiansburg Fire Company recently retired after half a century of service.
Capt. Harold Zerkle’s retirement started on Feb. 1 after 50 years of dedication to the fire company.
While his career with the fire company lasted 50 years, Zerkle’s involvement with the department started with his father.
In 1948, Zerkle’s father, Melvin, joined the fire company when it was founded the same year. Harold Zerkle said his father was a fireman, secretary and trustee.
“Back in those days you only had a chief and assistant chief,” Harold Zerkle recalled. “You didn’t have the captains and lieutenants and things. That came down the road. And of course back then when we started you only had two trucks, you had a tanker and an engine so of course it’s increased over the years from two trucks up to basically four trucks now and a squad – back then we didn’t even have a squad when they started.
“He’d take me when I was little to show me where the fire was at and we’d come down to the firehouse and they’d be doing stuff and we’d work around there and help them,” he said.
Zerkle said the fire company was a family affair because they knew everybody who was on the department and they all lived in the village.
“It was a home away from home. It was your second home,” Zerkle said. “There’s times I’d be down here with Mom while Dad was on a fire and they’d be fixing food to take out to them or doing stuff like that.”
After years of going to the fire company with his father, Zerkle joined the department in November 1965 as a firefighter. Zerkle worked alongside his father until 1967 when Melvin Zerkle died of a heart attack while driving a firetruck.
“His father was involved with (the fire company) to a point where he was dedicated and that’s what was passed on to him,” Christiansburg Fire Chief Bob Hoey said about Harold Zerkle.
His dedication to the fire company was often reflected in his attendance. Hoey said information found by the fire company showed Harold Zerkle had a 91 percent attendance rate to fire meetings over an 18-year period.
During his tenure, Harold Zerkle was a lieutenant, assistant chief and trustee.
Of the multiple positions he held, Zerkle said he took the most pride in being a captain. In this role he was in charge of gear maintenance and had to lead when the chief and assistant chief were not present.
“You didn’t have the responsibility of everybody,” Zerkle said of the captain position. “You had men under you and you had to take a leadership role, but you didn’t have near the pressure of being a captain as you do as an assistant chief or as a chief.”
Some of the experiences he remembers during his career include rescuing people from houses without food and heat during a blizzard and responding to the old Graham South school when it caught fire.
He also helped with maintaining finances. Hoey said as a private fire company, the department is run as a business and Zerkle has served on the company’s auditing committee for a number of years.
Zerkle said the only money the company has borrowed was to start the company. A current example of the company’s fiscal responsibility is preparing to buy a new tanker this year and not having to borrow money for the purchase.
“I’ve been on three different committees on purchasing engines and every engine we bought we paid cash for,” he said. “The engine 2 that we’ve got over here now, I flew over to Chicago with another fellow and we had the check in our hand to pay for it and we drove it back from Chicago.
“That’s something to be proud of in a department that you pass on, that you work for your money and try to save here and there, and before you buy it have money in hand. Yeah we’ve gotten a few grants to help pay for it in the last few years, but prior to I would say 1995, ‘98 along in there we didn’t get any grants because we’re a private company.”
Zerkle credits past chiefs and members of the fire company along with current members as being instrumental to his success.
Over the years, Zerkle said, fire training changed significantly. When he started, he said, he had to complete 36 hours of training and did not have to maintain continuing training.
“Now if you’re not a level one or level two firefighter, you’re not legally allowed to go into a building that’s burning,” he said. “You got to have 18 to 20 hours of continuing education every year to maintain your card. To be a volunteer fire department, that’s hard to keep up sometimes.”
In addition to Zerkle and his father, his brother Jerry also served on the fire company for more than five years. Harold’s mother Esther and his wife Mary Lee have also been members of the women’s auxiliary of the fire company.
Continuing with family tradition, Harold’s son Trent joined the fire company in 1989. Currently a lieutenant, Trent Zerkle joined the junior fireman program in 1984, but his first experience with the fire company started at a young age.
“I could remember going to a fire when I was 4 years old and eating breakfast with him, because he was a diabetic so you had to take him breakfast,” Trent Zerkle said. “My mom took food for the firemen to eat and she took him breakfast and I remember sitting on a tailgate of a truck eating breakfast with him with I was four-years-old.”
Trent Zerkle said his father’s dedication and leading by example pointed him toward the profession.
“‘I’m going to be at the meeting and so are you. I’m going to be at those fires and so are you,’” Trent Zerkle recalled his father saying. “‘If you’re going to be an officer then you don’t half do something – you do it.’”
“It makes you proud,” Harold Zerkle said about his son’s career. “You like to see that in anybody.”
While Trent Zerkle said the fire company will fill the roles left by his father’s retirement, he added it will be hard to replace the knowledge of how the department works.
“It’s something I’ve done with him for almost 30 years and to just change that overnight, it’s still hard to realize he’s not going to be on that fire today,” Trent Zerkle said. “He’s still around, I still see him everyday, but he’s not going to go on that truck when we go out tonight on a fire…and there’s still some adjustment to that.”
Harold Zerkle said he will miss going on fire runs and interacting with the other members of the fire company. He hopes he left behind the knowledge of how to perform their job safely and correctly.
“That’s all you can do is teach them how to do it, what to do, when to do it, when not to do it and be safe about doing it,” Harold Zerkle said.
Nick Walton can be reached at 937-652-1331 Ext. 1777 or on Twitter @UDCWalton.