I wanted to talk a little bit about some folks who have mentored me throughout my career and there is no better way to start than to introduce Chief Jerry Griffith.
Chief Griffith, or Griff as he was known to his "guys" was put on the fire department on April 18, 1961. He worked as a paid volunteer and his "real" job was working as a printer. During that time, and for many years before, the department had been made up of all volunteers, members of the community who responded to all of the calls in the response area and met twice a month for training meetings and general commentary on whatever was going on in the city at the time. Griff took over as chief of the department from Truman Boling on March 22, 1972. Boling, who had been on the department since April, 1951, was a master builder by trade, and, along with his son Mike who is also a fire departmetn retiree, was instrumental in the building of the fire station that was previously occupied at 215 SW A Street.
Griff was promoted into a paid position as chief in 1978. This was the first full paid chief position at the City of Bentonville.
Griff's most instrumental and lasting effect on the department was the decision to take over the ambulance service when the local funeral home decided to get out of the business, in September 1977. This move, although controversial at the time, allowed the department room to grow and, looking back, was a decision that many fire departments only came to in the 1990's and beyond, finding that housing ambulances in fire houses and cross training the members was a sure-fire way to insure full paid staffing for the fire apparatus.
When I got hired on at the department thirty years ago, Griff was the "old man" who oversaw all of the fire calls, many times staying with a burned out house through-out the night to make sure there were no re-kindles or missed hot spots, constantly smoking his Benson and Hedges cigarettes.
This is what I remember - first morning cup of coffee at the station, planning out his day.
Griff had been in a firefighting family, or married into one. His beloved wife Deloras was the daughter, granddaughter, and wife of a Bentonville Fire Chief. Thier son Scott served on the department for a time as well. As a side note, Deloras' mother Pearl Maples was crazy for the fire department. Her dad, husband and son-in-law were all on the department as just mentioned, and Pearl had a scanner or fire department radio that she took everywhere with her to monitor what we were doing all of the time. I took her in the ambulance to the hospital a couple of times and the monitor went with her. When she passed away, I was a pall bearer at her funeral. I often wondered whether she took the monitor with her...She was a faithful supporter.
A visit to the Griffith house brings rememberance of jazz music and cigarette smoke, like their own little jazz club. They both enjoyed star-gazing and could name all of the major stars and constellations. A wealth of knowledge it seems.
Griff also oversaw the addition onto the old station in 1980 and instead of three drivers, one for each shift, the department first had three per shift, then four when I arrived in 1982. He brought the city personnel with paramedic training, some of the first in the state, along with Springdale, Fayetteville, Rogers, and Bella Vista.
The addition of the ambulances helped secure not only a strong foundation for a fire department but also the best in medically trained personnel for the citizens of Bentonville and the outlying areas. For many years Bentonville was the only department in the county with rescue equipment and responded all the way to the Missouri and Oklahoma state lines for rescue efforts. When Rogers made a decision around 1980 to discontinue all ambulance service outside of its city limits, it was Bentonville that took up the slack, responding past the Rogers stations and out into the Beaver Lake area, a politically motivated move that was fortunately short lived.
We now have a department with 60 uniformed personnel and six administrative personnel. What began as a hundred fire calls a year and maybe 60 ambulance calls per month has turned into nearly 5000 calls a year, from five station strategically located around the city, with a sixth in the planning stages.
The last time I saw Griff was shortly before he moved to California to be closer to his daughter Nancy Griffin Volkins. It was about 2002 or 2003. I wanted to make it clear to him that he was what had made the Bentonville Fire Department into what it is today. He was instrumental in making me into what I am today, a thirty year employee, battalion chief, paramedic. His eyes teared up a little and he only said, " Thanks."
Chief Griffith died February 3, 2010 in California. Deloras died a couple of years before, and, after a couple of devastating strokes, Griff could no longer remember where she had gone.
I bring this up to remind everyone to remember where they came from. And remember where you are going. There is likely to be someone somewhere back there that gave you some direction. I am happy to say that Jerry Griffith pointed me in the right direction and I will always be grateful.