MASON — For over 61 years, when the call came, George Ray VanMatre left his family to protect the families of others as a member of the Mason Volunteer Fire Department.
Last week, he hung his bunker gear for the final time, retiring from Station House 5. He was surrounded by many of his fellow firefighters on Sunday, as they gathered to honor the longest running fireman in Mason County.
Fire Chief C.R. Blake presented VanMatre with his fire helmet at the reception, adding it would now also be retired. VanMatre was showered with other honors and gifts, including a certificate of appreciation from West Virginia Governor Jim Justice, an etched mug, original framed photograph by Dylan Perkins, and eatery gift certificates.
Blake said the department will definitely miss VanMatre.
“His 61 years of experience can never be replaced,” the chief stated. “With what he has seen and what he has been through, you can’t get that from a book.”
Calling VanMatre a “very valuable asset,” Blake said the retiree was actively answering calls right up to his final days.
“He was our most active member,” Blake said. “When the tones went off, he was there no matter what. He sometimes left his family in restaurants to go on a call.”
VanMatre’s job throughout the years was that of an engineer, meaning he drove and operated the trucks, according to Blake. The chief added while VanMatre has held many administrative positions within the department, including president, vice president, and secretary, he chose to not go to a higher rank than that of lieutenant because he wanted to remain on the front lines as a firefighter.
VanMatre joined the department in 1956 on his 14th birthday, the youngest age for a junior fireman at that time. He said he would run from his house on Third Street the two-and-a-half blocks to the fire station. He had no formal training when he joined, and said his early years were spent “hanging onto the tailgate of one of the trucks.”
Some of the larger fires VanMatre fought in his career were Dr. Keig’s clinic, the Cook family barn, and an entire corner of structures at Horton and Railroad streets, all in Mason. Outside of the municipality, VanMatre remembered fighting the fire at the Chevrolet garage in Point Pleasant, as well as the “Entertainer,” a restaurant and club in Camp Conley.
Sandwiches and cake were served to those attending the reception. VanMatre thanked the members of the department, adding he will miss it.
Mindy Kearns is a freelance writer for Ohio Valley Publishing, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.