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50 years of fighting fires

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A LIFETIME MEMBER: Retired firefighter David Marshall poses with a “lifetime member” certificate for the Center Township Volunteer Fire Department.
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FIRE DEPARTMENT HISTORY: An old photo shows David Marshall, left, at the scene of a mobile home fire.
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FIREFIGHTER: David Marshall, 71, who has been on the Center Township Volunteer Fire Department for 50 years, has decided to retire from fire runs. Here he sits atop a fire truck and rests his hands on the fire hose pumps.

By Clay Winowiecki - cwinowiecki@chronicle-tribune.com

A local firefighter is retiring from the Center Township Volunteer Fire Department after 50 years on the department.

David Marshall, 71, has been involved with the department all his life. After reaching his goal of fighting fires for 50 years, he is now working right back where he started as an 8 year old boy: station attendant.

Like many young children, Marshall first wanted to become a firefighter at the age of four or five. 

In 1957, when he was 8 years old, he started spending time around the Center Township Volunteer Fire Department.

“My uncle was fire chief, so I rode my bicycle down,” Marshall said. “All those firemen took me in as their son and watched me.”

According to Marshall, this was during the fire department’s earliest days.

The department had just gotten off the ground. The first fire chief and his father spoke with the Center Township trustee who gave them $5,000 to get the department started.

The pair went out and bought a 1948 front-mount pump fire truck followed by an old oil tanker they converted to hold water.

In 1969, at the age of 20, Marshall had the chance to come onto the fire department officially. “They took me on in the first part of March and they said you can’t make your first fire run until you’re 21, which was the 14th day of March,” Marshall said.

On March 14 the realization of his boyhood dream came to life.

“That afternoon it snowed,” he recalled. “I went to Shady Hills on an overhead door motor smoking. That was at 3 p.m.”

He’s been on countless runs since and has held every job title from assistant chief on down.

Looking back on his time at the department, he remembers how challenging it was to be a volunteer while balancing life’s duties.

Marshall raised two kids, spent 16 years on the township board and another two years as the vice president of Grant County Mutual Aid.

He held his day job at R.C.A. Thompson for 37 years.

“I worked at the factory and I’ve done some other part time work,” he said. “Sometimes you don’t know where the day went to.”

At one point in time, 23 out of the department’s 24 firemen all worked at R.C.A. Thompson, he added.

“Back then you just had your gear and you were on the truck,” he said. “Today it’s all different. You have to take 40 hours of this and that and you gotta have Firefighter 1 and 2 before you can get on the truck.”

The additional requirements are causing the department to lose needed firefighters, he added.

When Marshall first began fighting fires he was equipped with an old, thin coat, pull up boots and an insufficient helmet.

“I tell these guys you haven’t fought fire until your eyes are bloodshot and black stuff’s running out of your nose and you’re foaming at the mouth,” he joked.

In his time, he’s had his injuries, too. His left ear received burns and hot tar once landed under his left eye.

“It’s not easy out there to fight (fire),” he added. “The main thing is everybody that goes out that door, we want everybody to come back.”

Some tragic moments from fire runs have never left his memory.

“The one time that we went over to Evan’s Junkyard, the building back there was on fire,” he said. “When we pulled up there the place was fully involved and I could hear (a man) screaming. The flames had come up and there was nothing we could do.” On another fire run a father and his baby boy were lost.

“I’ve seen it and it’s not good,” he said. “It sticks with you for a long time.”

To help cope, Marshall said it’s important to have a counselor come in and speak with firefighters after such tragic instances.

Being a firefighter requires the whole family to support you, too.

Over the years, Marshall’s wife joined the auxiliary and his daughter won “Miss Flame,” a competition for those with close ties to their local fire department. Now his son and his son-in-law are both on the Center Township Volunteer Fire Department.

According to Fire Chief Rob Columbus, Marshall’s experience is invaluable.

“He has been one of the mentors to the fire department,” Columbus said. “If it’s happened he’s seen it, basically.”

Columbus doesn’t take Marshall’s 50 years of service lightly.

“It’s something that you really don’t see that much anymore,” Columbus said. “You’ve got to have it pretty deep in your heart to commit to keep doing something (for that long) that doesn’t pay you.”

But while Marshall may be retiring from fire runs, he’ll still be back at the department making sure the doors are down, making coffee, taking the trash out and running the radio.

“I’m going to do it as long as I can do it,” he said. “If I stop, it might be the end.”