On Tuesday, January 24, I headed to the Riverside Apartments to interview an old friend for a story I was going to write about the Newcomerstown Fire Department.
I arrived about 1 p.m. and found Dave Leading, my source of fire department history, waiting for me fully prepared. Dave had selected a number of personal photos and clippings for me to review and they were neatly piled on his kitchen table.
Dave has been a friend and asset to Newcomerstown residents since the moment he moved to town in the 1940s. Like Captain America, he tried unsuccessfully to join the service during World War II. He enlisted in the Navy but they would not take him due to asthma and hayfever. The Navy doctor told him to go home and finish school and the draft would eventually take him. So he tried again with the draft, but with no success. Dave said, "All of my buddies joined and went overseas. Some came back and some didn't. It always bothered me. I felt like I was just left behind."
He has opened businesses in town and served our community in numerous ways. Dave was a city council member and then represented Tri-County Ambulance in council for two years. He was a member of the village water board for eight years and a CDL driver's license examiner for nine years.
Dave said, "It's funny that I still remember sitting in a council meeting when some guy ran in and said, 'Who has a 1954 Ford? ... I just ran into it!' The car belonged to me."
But it is two other positions he has held that sparks vivid memories of those that know him. For 38 years he drove a Newcomerstown school bus ... and for 30 years he was a member of the Newcomerstown Fire Department and rose to the position of Fire Chief.
Dave is also remembered as an excellent musician. In fact, my first memories of Dave are from high school. We were presenting The Music Man and he graciously volunteered to join the high school pit band and play the string bass.
The musical score had no surprises for him. He had already played The Music Man once for The Tuscarawas County Little Theatre. Dr. Agricola's wife, Virginia, also played piano for the shows. At that time, the group did not have their own theater and they were performing on stage at Dover High School.
The Little Theatre's Music Man was the first of many shows he would be a part of. Between the Tuscarawas County Little Theatre, Coshocton Footlight Players, and Newcomerstown productions, he has about 40 shows under his belt. Dave said, "I remember thinking it was funny. Here I am, an 80-year-old man playing in a high school pit band." But he loved every moment of it.
Dave was with the fire department from 1950-1980, accumulating 30 years of service. When I reacted to finding that number of years very impressive, he told me that my grandfather, Curly Wise, holds the record of 42 years of service in the department.
Like my grandfather, Dave joined the department when it was completely volunteer. The department of full-time firefighters and rescue personnel was not established until around the time he retired.
In the days of the volunteer fire department, there was a dispatcher who would take the calls and then write the name and location of the emergency on a small-ish chalkboard that the volunteers would see when the arrived at the fire station.
Dave remembers one day the siren blew and he was the first one to the station. So he got the truck ready to go because as soon as another fireman got there, they would take the truck to the fire and then other volunteers would meet them at the location indicated on the chalkboard.
Well, Dave was in the driver's seat waiting when Bill Gunn arrived and jumped up into the truck. Dave hesitated and xxx asked him, "What are you waiting for?" And, Dave, trying to decipher the handwriting on the chalkboard, said, "I don't know where we are going. I can't read the board." Gunn replied, "Hell, we're going to YOUR house. Get going!" A fire had started in a bedroom that Dave was renovating for his son.
The largest fire that he remembers was the Goshen Brickyard fire of Friday, May 9, 1958. It was a 5-hour blaze that swept through the two-story factory shortly after it was closed for the weekend. Port Washington, West Lafayette, and Stone Creek fire departments joined Newcomerstown to battle the blaze.
The aftermath presented a tangled mass of machinery and equipment in the ashes. The loss to the company was in excess of $350,000 but thankfully for the 112 employees that worked there, the factory was rebuilt.
The amusing thing about this fire is that it was reported at the time the department was having their meeting outside near Buckhorn. James Tish lived near Goshen and reported smoke coming from the building. The dispatcher took the call and then tried to reach the firefighters on the old walkie-talkies in service at that point. After receiving the call, the firefighters turned in the direction of the brickyard and saw the sky full of smoke.
Another fire he recalls and still feels sad about to this day is the house fire of Dr. Agricola on a Christmas morning in the 1960s. That is also a fire from which he could have lost his life.
That Christmas morning it was 18 degrees outside and everything was ice. Dave was about to go through an upstairs window when the water pressure from the hose came on and about threw him off the ladder. Luckily, he was caught on the ladder and dangled there until Bill Gunn raised another ladder and he rode down on Gunn's shoulders.
Dave said the Agricola fire was one of the worst house fires he can remember. He said, "We tried to save Virginia's piano because I knew how much it meant to her. She absolutely loved it. We moved it out on the front porch but it got ruined anyway from all of the water.
With a heavy heart, Dave said, "Of all of the fires I fought that had fatalities, I was the one that found all of them, except one. You have to have something like a good sense of humor to get past things like that." He mentioned going through the rubble of a fire and finding the body of an infant. It is stories like this that make me appreciate the rescue workers we currently have even more.
I talked to Dave for two hours that day and I came back with many more stories and highlights of his life that could fill the entire newspaper.
Last year, he was one of 45,000 people that participated in the annual Mackinac Bridge Walk in Michigan. Dave had always wanted to partake in the festivity, so his daughter, Susan, pushed him the five-mile span across the bridge in a wheelchair.
While there, I also discovered that he is now in hospice care and that his 90th birthday was to be in two days, on Thursday, Jan. 26. So, when I returned to the office, I called a few friends and arranged a surprise for Dave on his birthday.
So when I returned to his apartment on Thursday, I walked his and said that I hope he did not mind me bringing some friends along. And then, in walked Mayor Pat Cadle and three members of the Newcomerstown Fire Department; Heather Stein-Wells, Chris Gardner, and Brennan McGarry.
Mayor Cadle presented Dave with a certificate recognizing him for his service to our community. The fire department presented him with a beautiful birthday cake decorated with flames. I then told Dave that they brought the fire truck along and before I could say another word he wanted to jump from his seat. He put on his coat and we all stepped outside for a photo beside the truck.
Dave was already like a child just seeing and being near the fire engine ... and then we asked, "Do you want to go for a ride?" His face lit up even more and could not believe we were serious.
I got to ride with Dave! We talked and enjoyed the ride ... and it was not just around the block. We took him to see his son, Steven at a care center in West Lafayette. His daughter, Susan, was also due in later that afternoon for a surprise visit.
Dave called me the next day and said, "If I live to be 100 years old, I will remember that day for the rest of my life." Thank you, Dave, for the memories and for all you have done to make Newcomerstown a better place to live.