MASON — Not many people can boast about doing anything in their life for 60 consecutive years.
But George Ray VanMatre certainly deserves bragging rights as a 60-year member of the Mason Volunteer Fire Department. As the longest running fireman in Mason County, VanMatre was honored at the department’s Christmas dinner recently.
VanMatre joined the department on Oct. 19, 1956, his 14th birthday and the minimum age you could join. He would run from his house on Third Street the two-and-a-half blocks to the fire station, which was then a two-story building next to the present station.
There was no 911 center when VanMatre joined the department. After-hour calls were received by the night duty nurse at Dr. Keig’s clinic. Later, a dispatcher was hired who lived in the upstairs portion of the fire house.
VanMatre said his early years as a firefighter consisted of hanging onto the tailgate of one of two fire trucks that the department owned. The firemen had very little equipment. What bunker gear they did have was a leather-type helmet, black coat, and a pair of rubber boots, he said. There were no gloves, and “breathing apparatus” was a coal miner’s mask.
The longtime fireman had no formal training when he joined, learning only by the knowledge and experience of those around him. Bob Lee was the fire chief at the time.
VanMatre said he has served with many great chiefs and members, many of whom are now gone. A few of them he named were Fred Taylor, George Carson, Joe Young, Frank Harris, Bliss Wilson and Ross Roush.
Some of the larger fires VanMatre can remember fighting were the “Entertainer” restaurant and club in Camp Conley, a Chevrolet garage in Point Pleasant, Dr. Keig’s clinic, the Cook family barn, and an entire corner of structures at Horton and Railroad streets, all in Mason.
VanMatre has seen a lot of changes through the years, noting most of them are positive. The department now owns two engines, one rescue vehicle and a boat for water rescues. He stated all equipment is up-to-date and the firefighters all have air packs.
VanMatre is very proud of the fact that Mason has the only station that is owned by the department, and not the county. In fact, he helped build the present station, which was completed in 1971.
The fireman said while he joined the department at 14 years, a junior firefighter must be 16 now, and 18 to be a senior fireman. A lot of training is presently required, including the passage of Level I and II and hazardous materials training before the first fire run can be made.
At the recent dinner where VanMatre was honored, he was presented a trophy cup by the department depicting a leather bucket from the old time fire bucket brigade. He also received certificates from both West Virginia Governor Earl Ray Tomblin and U.S. Senator Joe Manchin, III.
Fellow firefighters and family reminisced with VanMatre, as well.
Fire Chief Rob Johnson, who also joined the department at 14, said he moved from Mason and joined the military, returning after 21 years.
“I was surprised he (VanMatre) was still here when I got back,” Johnson said. “We are fortunate to have someone as experienced as he is around for as long as we have. The younger firefighters can learn a lot from that experience.”
Deputy Chief Paul Johnson laughed as he told about the way VanMatre and others found where a fire was years ago if they missed the trucks. It was prior to citizens band radios, and Johnson said the men only had to follow the water trail.
“Our trucks were always leaking,” he said.
VanMatre’s wife, Barbara, never remembers a time when her husband wasn’t on the department. Married 54 years, she said one thing has gotten better with age when dealing with the fire department.
“He use to be in such a rush to get to a fire that he busted through our screen door,” she said. “Now that he’s a little slower, he takes the time to open the door.”
VanMatre, who still actively answers and works fire calls, said he plans to continue “’til I can’t do it anymore.”
Mindy Kearns is a freelance writer for Ohio Valley Publishing who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.