Answering the call: Woodstock firefighter honored for 50 years of volunteer service

WOODSTOCK — Wayne Bowers has reached a golden anniversary in his fire service career.

After joining the Woodstock Fire Department on May 5, 1974, Bowers was recently recognized for 50 years of service as a volunteer.

“I wanted to do something for my community,” Bowers said. “I knew I could. Well, I thought I could fight fires better than I could help someone through the rescue squad because, well, I don’t like the sight of blood — mine included.”

During his five decades of service the 72-year-old has held multiple titles including chief of the department and mechanical engineer — a special role created for Bowers.

“For starters, I’ve always liked fire trucks,” Bowers said smiling. “Who doesn’t?”

Bowers recalled as a young boy hopping onto his bike when he heard a firetruck go out on a rescue call. He would peddle as fast as he could to get to the scene to watch. There was something special about seeing that bright red truck navigate the streets of Shenandoah County, he said, even more so today, as drivers yield to first responders responding to 911 calls.

“I also went to the firemen’s carnival,” said Bowers. “I think over time I got interested because I really wanted to help people at their lowest moments.”

With the recent recognition, Bowers has had time to reflect on career experiences, the highs and lows, losses and the calls he said helped shape him into the man he is today.

After submitting his application in 1974, Bowers was quickly accepted. He navigated his way through the department, learning among some of the best, including then-Fire Chief Joe Hottle, who served from the mid 1950s to 70s.

“He was the chief back then, and after I was accepted, I found out he had cancer,” said Bowers, who said despite the diagnosis Huddle helped him through training.

“He made arrangements that made it possible for me to go to Augusta County, besides what we were doing here in Woodstock.”

“I was learning along the way,” Bowers continued. “When Joe passed away, Jim Blunt, the assistant chief then, took me under his wing. He gave me a lot of knowledge.”

Looking back on his first year, Bowers said he responded to 46 calls. In 2023, the fire and rescue department responded to 544 calls. Bowers said the increase in calls is due not only to the growth in population but also to Interstate 81, which Bowers said is believed to be the worst interstate in Virginia.

“In June 1975, I responded to a call on South Main Street,” he recalled. ”That fire stood out to me because it was my first working fire since I joined.”

Between 1974-75 Bowers responded to his fair share of incidents, but the Walton and Smoot pharmacy fire stuck out because he said it was the first-time multiple departments answered the emergency call.

“We had to call for a couple neighboring fire trucks that night,” Bowers said, including Toms Brook and Mount Jackson. “Joe Huddle was still in charge, and I remembered he called for Front Royal’s ladder truck — the only one around at the time.”

In 1982, Bowers scorched his helmet responding to a fire at a local printing shop.

“When we got on scene, they told us there were people upstairs,” he said.

Remembering a loud rumble in the background, a sound Bowers said he’s never forgotten, smoke filled the floor as the back of the building was engulfed in flames. He and other firefighters raced to the second floor to help save the occupants.

He also remembers several calls where he was not only a firefighter but also an EMT, when he used the jaws of life, aiding in entrapments and other lifesaving maneuvers.

“There’s no way to know how many calls I’ve answered,” he said. “You run so many and put them into the top 10, you’re recognized for your service and then they change again.”

Bowers made his living working for over 30 years in the county’s school bus garage during a time when volunteers were allowed to leave their place of employment to answer emergency calls.

“It helped with volunteerism,” he said. “Nowadays it’s different because employers are concerned about productivity. It’s just a different day and time now. Volunteers are fading away because the availability of getting off work isn’t there.”

Volunteerism has generally decreased in volunteer fire departments across the county, not just in Woodstock.

“There are still a lot of volunteer departments out there but a lot of the time you have a combination — career staff alongside to help supplement the volunteers.”

Bowers credits his longevity to what he calls the “Brotherhood.”

If someone loses a child, the whole department experiences it. But not just here. In all departments. Even across the country. When someone passes away, say in California, we recognize them. A brotherhood between all firehouses.”

Bowers is part of a small percentage of firefighters recognized for 50 years of service. For him, that recognition means a lot.

While he doesn’t answer every call, Bowers manages to answer as many as possible. He joked that he missed riding the tailboard now that enclosed cabs have became a permanent fixture.

“It was such a thrill going doing the road,” he said about riding on the back of the truck. “Whether in the rain, slow or sleet we protected one another from the elements.”

Aside from the changes in fire apparatus, Bowers has seen changes in technology, automobiles and safety.

“It’s such a stressful job, you had to have some fun,” he said.

How many more years does Bowers have left in him? He said that’s up to the Lord.

“If he allows me to continue to help my community, I’ll be here,” he said.