City Legion honors longtime firefighter
VERGENNES — Former Ferrisburgh Volunteer Fire Department Chief Bob Jenkins remembers as a teen in his native Vergennes hearing the siren on top of City Hall, racing to the fire station to find out where the action was, and then heading to watch firefighters do their job.
“That got the adrenaline flowing,” said Jenkins, now 66.
At the age of 16 he followed in his father’s footsteps and approached Vergennes Volunteer Fire Department Chief Ralph Jackman and signed up, beginning a 50-years-and-counting career in the fire service, including 17 years as Ferrisburgh’s chief.
“What intrigued me was the challenges and the excitement, and being able to help somebody in need, in dire need. Normally when we get called it’s because they need us. I like, and I don’t want to sound corny here, but I really like making a difference in people’s lives in emergency situations,” Jenkins said. “It’s a great feeling to me to be able to help somebody.”
First and foremost, those 50 years in the fire service are why Jenkins was chosen as the 16th winner of the annual Community Service Award given by Vergennes American Legion Post 14. Jenkins — also a multi-term Ferrisburgh selectman — will receive the honor at Post 14’s annual anniversary dinner on March 11, the city Legion post’s 90th.
A Post 14 committee selects the winner (see related story for full list). Committee member Larney McGrath said Jenkins’ record in the fire service — it includes 11 years in Vergennes, a lengthy tenure as a Vermont State Firefighters Association instructor, and organizing firefighters’ funerals — tells only part of the story.
Both out front and behind the scenes in Ferrisburgh, Jenkins gets things done, McGrath said.
“He’s been an outstanding community leader. No matter what Bobby took on, he stayed with it. He saw it through,” McGrath said. “Whether it was in the fire service, or in the community, or with the youth, whatever it was, he was a guy you could count on.”
Committee member Henry Broughton said consensus on Jenkins developed quickly.
“We had other candidates, and he rose to the top,” Broughton said. “I talked to the town clerk out there, and he said if you want something done in Ferrisburgh, go to Bob. He’s really involved in everything.”
Legion members are not eligible for the award. Post 14 communications officer John Mitchell said he usually publicizes his organization’s activities and is happy to highlight others in the community.
“This particular award is a way of saying we’re proud of what we do, but we know there are a lot of other folks, like Bob, out there … and we want to recognize them,” Mitchell said.
Jenkins said he never expected the call.
“I like doing stuff for my community. I love my community. I always have,” he said. “And I never look for rewards, so when they asked me if I would accept that, I was really touched.”
50 YEARS OF SERVICE
Jenkins credits others with his success in the fire service, specifically three men who mentored him but have all passed away now: Jackman and two of his deputy chiefs, Ray Davison and Bill Plankey.
Jenkins said the major elements of what he learned from Jackman were how to lead firefighters in a department and command fire scenes; from Davison, the value and specifics of training; and from Plankey, the nitty-gritty of how to fight fires.
“I learned a lot from the good old boys in the good old days,” he said.
Jenkins and his wife, Mary Jane, moved to Ferrisburgh in 1966 from Vergennes. In 1969, Jenkins joined the town department. Due to his experience, he was soon named a captain. In 1970, department nominating committee chairman Sam Cutting approached Jenkins.
“He came to me one night and said, ‘We want you as our chief.’ And I said, ‘Well, I’ll try,’” Jenkins said. “It was quite a move, a lot of responsibility. But fortunately it goes back to these (Jackman, Davison and Plankey), and that’s why I wanted to mention them, how much they helped me get to where I’ve been in the fire service. Without those three gentlemen right there I wouldn’t have been as good at it as I am.”
After he retired as chief, Jenkins received another award: In 1988, the Vergennes Area Rescue Squad named him an honorary member. When VARS had arrived at calls over the years, Jenkins was often awaiting them.
“Back then if there was a call in Ferrisburgh I would get there before the ambulance and give them an update when they got there,” he said.
Jenkins also studied fighting LP gas and flammable liquid fires, and the state firefighters association asked him to share his knowledge. He traveled around Vermont to meet with local associations and into New York and Canada to sit down with departments to present a popular two-day course in that specialty.
The first day he taught in the classroom, but the second day students spent with him in a dramatic and somewhat scary — but safe — field demonstration.
“You prepare them in the classroom for what they’re going to go up against the next day. And once you’re out there with them, they never forget it, because you feel them trembling when you take them in the fires. It’s roaring,” Jenkins said.
Jenkins also discussed the delicate responsibility and “the honor” of organizing firefighters’ funerals. He arranged the high-profile services for Ralph Jackman, Fred Jackman, Bruce Young and Ray Davison, among many others.
He spoke about the recent ceremony for the man he called “my brother Ralph” in Vergennes.
“It was very emotional to me, because he was my chief, the first chief I ever had, and I knew him ever since I was a little kid,” Jenkins said. “It’s a hard job, but it’s a nice feeling to think you’re making a difference in somebody’s life that’s so special to you.”
One difficult part is he must wait to grieve himself while he makes sure all runs smoothly.
“You have to do the job, and then when it’s over, you can have your time,” he said. “What I normally do is get in my truck and go for a ride somewhere.”
Over the years Jenkins had served as a youth baseball coach and been involved with youth recreation and other community activities in Ferrisburgh. But he had never held public office until 2003, when a vacancy cropped up on the selectboard. Selectmen asked him to consider serving the remaining year of a term. He recalled the process.
“I interviewed for that first year-long term. I go into the selectboard and I sit down, and they said, ‘What interests you in becoming a selectman?’ And I said, ‘Nothing, because you’re the one who asked me to come to interview. I don’t know what you want from me.’ And they laughed. And I said, ‘Hey, I don’t care if I get this or not. If you need me, I’m here to help,’” Jenkins said. “Well, they called me the next night.”
He served that year, and didn’t run again. Three years later, the board called again. Chairman Larry Simino was moving to Addison. Jenkins agreed again, and in 2008 ran for another two years because the Grange construction project had begun. Jenkins has worked for Shelburne’s Farrington Construction for 40 years, and was a natural as the board’s contact person with the contractors.
This past March, Jenkins defeated a challenger for another two-year term, 325-176. Jenkins ran although he said his feelings for serving on the board do not run as deep as they do for the fire service.
“I enjoy working with the town and the selectboard,” he said. “But if I had my druthers, I’d probably say ‘See you,’ to the town (office). I’d just as soon protect them as represent them.”
Now he will be recognized for both.
“If you look at the plaque that all the names go on, to be put on the plaque with all those people is a great honor,” Jenkins said. “To be considered to be on that plaque with them is a great honor, it really is. It makes me feel very proud.”
McGrath said Jenkins should be proud.
“I’ve never known Bobby to be one to look for the awards,” he said. “The awards came to him because of what he did.”
Reporter Andy Kirkaldy is at [email protected].