Atwell fire chief passes the torch

Published 12:00 am Monday, January 24, 2011

By Susan Shinn
For the Salisbury Post
CHINA GROVE — Spend any time with members of volunteer fire departments, and you’ll discover the tight-knit bond shared by this brotherhood.
When there are successes, it is everyone’s success. When one firefighter falls, each one is affected.
On Saturday evening, more than 70 firefighters of Atwell Volunteer Fire Department and their families came together for a Service of Commitment and Prayer at Concordia Lutheran Church. The service honored a transition of chiefs, from Gary McLaughlin, who retired in that position, to Tim Beaver, who was promoted from assistant chief.
Both men started with the fire department as teens, and both served in their previous positions for 21 years.
It was the longest tenure of the six chiefs who have served Atwell, said Chaplain Frank Greene.
“Gary needs to have a little bit of attention,” Greene said before the service, which was a surprise for McLaughlin, Beaver and their wives. “He likes to fly under the radar.”
Neither McLaughlin nor Beaver likes to talk much about themselves, or seek attention. Rather, they are men of action.
During the service, Greene talked about King Solomon, and the unchanging God he served. Greene spoke of change as a positive thing, as a way of moving forward, as a signal of progress.
McLaughlin’s pastor, the Rev. Ken Reed of Concordia, and Beaver’s pastor, the Rev. Robert Suttles of West Corinth Baptist Church, participated in the service with the laying on of hands of both men and their wives.
The laying on of hands, Reed explained, means that God has made a promise, and the action is the signal that the person so honored is receiving a blessing.
Reed likened being a chief’s wife to being a pastor’s wife — changes of plans happen at a moment’s notice, meals are missed.
“It’s not an easy thing to do, and other people have benefitted from it,” he said.
Babies murmured as they men received their blessings.
Suttles characterized Beaver as a giver.
“I’ve yet to find anything Tim won’t do for his church,” Suttles said.
When Moses grew weary, Suttles said, he had the support of others.
“Tim will help the department move into the future,” Suttles said, “but he cannot do it alone.”
It doesn’t just take the commitment of the chief to make the fire department successful, Suttles said. It takes the whole department.
Firefighters were asked to reaffirm their commitment to God, country, family, community and the fire department.
After reading together the Firefighter’s Prayer, the group adjourned next door to the fire department for its annual banquet.
Tables were laden with barbecue, ribs, slaw, french fries and all sorts of desserts.
“It was a surprise party and I cooked,” said McLaughlin with a grin, who’d gotten up at 5 that morning to begin preparations for the meal.
McLaughlin’s roots with the fire department run deep.
“My grandfather was one of the founders,” he said. His father was also a firefighter.
“I came over here with my dad when I was just a little fellow — grew up here, really,” said McLaughlin, now 55. “I just enjoyed it and I wanted to do my part in the community.”
He added, “We couldn’t operate without the other departments in the county. It’s a brotherhood — and a sisterhood, now, too.”
Beaver, who turns 50 in June, has been a part of that brotherhood nearly all his life as well.
He’s always lived in the Atwell community, and his father was a member of the department years ago. Beaver remembers standing on a 5-gallon bucket to bread hushpuppies for a fish fry.
“I’ve always been somebody who liked to help,” Beaver said. “I have a hard time turning people down. It’s more a family than anything else. Everybody sticks together in fire service.”
There have been changes in laws and standards in firefighting, Beaver said, and as chief, he’ll have to keep up with all the changes.
But it’s an honorable duty, he said. “When you put the uniform on, it’s just a humbling experience, but it does make you proud.”
It is an organization of which to be proud, too.
“We’re here when people need us, and as long as I’m here, we always will be,” Beaver said.
Lee Goodnight, the chief who preceded McLaughlin, stopped by to check on things, having come from a community dinner.
“I still keep up with what’s going on,” Goodnight said. “After 43 years, you don’t just walk off.”
Meanwhile, in the adjoining bay, firefighters’ children played on and around the gargantuan firetrucks.
The department’s newest truck, engine 402, is only a year or so old, and is filled with all sorts of high-tech equipment.
That didn’t matter to the children, who ran and jumped and climbed and squealed while the adults took part in the awards ceremony.
It’s a sign the department will continue for a long time to come.
Four-year-old Zachary Barham was one of the children in the group, his shoes lighting up as he ran. “My daddy’s a firefighter and I’m gonna be a firefighter, too!” Zachary said.
Freelance writer Susan Shinn lives in Salisbury.