Narvie Bonds: the ultimate volunteer for all seasons

Published 12:00 am Saturday, November 7, 2015

SALISBURY — Eric Bonds was a kid then, but he still remembers the night in 1967 when his father, Narvie “Bud” Bonds, announced he was heading off to another meeting.

Helen Bonds laid down the law for her husband. She forbid Narvie’s allowing anyone to talk him into doing something else. He already had too many commitments, she complained.

Narvie Bonds returned home later as the newly elected president of the Rowan County Fire and Rescue Association.

“Their relationship really wasn’t that good that night,” Eric says of his parents.

But that was Narvie Bonds. He couldn’t say no. He always placed himself in the middle of something that needed to be done, and his friends usually looked to him for leadership.

Bonds, who died Oct. 28 at the age of 85, was a founding member in 1956 of the Locke Volunteer Fire Department, and he served as the department’s chief for 35 years. While he was best known for his construction business and his connection to Locke, Bonds was involved in much more.

He coached the Elks Little League team for several years. He served as president of the West Rowan Booster Club. At First United Church of Christ in Salisbury, he was a deacon, elder and president of the church council.

After he stepped down as Locke chief in 1999, he became heavily involved in the N.C. Retired  Fire Chiefs Association, and until some health issues prevented him, Bonds was a dedicated member of the Rowan County Veterans Honor Guard.

“He had his hand in a lot of stuff,” Locke Fire Chief Rusty Alexander says.

Eric Bonds says his father was the ultimate volunteer.

“It wasn’t just the fire service,” Eric says. “He was huge in the whole community. He was just into everything.”

Narvie Bonds had the gift of gab — he loved to talk. If you dropped by his house for 15 minutes, you might find yourself there for a couple of hours.

Sometimes the only way to break yourself free, Locke Fire Chief Rusty Alexander says, was if a fire call sounded over the radio.

At all the fire department’s fundraisers through the decades, Bonds was the man socializing and thanking people for their support.

“He was a good leader,” Bill Kluttz says.

“And, gosh, he knew so many people,” Eric Bonds adds. “He never met a stranger.”

Narvie Bonds was the youngest of four children of Homer and Edith Bonds. Narvie had three sisters. and it was his dad’s idea to name his only son “Narvie Lee” over Edith’s protests. But the funny thing was, Eric Bonds says, the only people who called Narvie by his given name were Eric’s grandmother and his mother.

Everybody else — in the fire service and in the construction business —  called him “Bud” for much of his life.

Narvie “Bud” Bonds attended Hurley Elementary School as a kid and graduated from Mount Ulla High School in 1948.  Not long out of high school, he married Helen Thompson Bonds, who died almost exactly six months before Narvie in April. They had been wed 65 years.

Narvie Bonds served in the Korean War as a corporal in the U.S. Army. He worked for Wagoner Construction Co. for 36 years, many as a general superintendent. He then became owner and president of Narvie Bonds Construction for 25 years.

Bonds’ company had its hands in building new structures or  additions to places such as Rowan Regional Medical Center and Catawba College, as well as stations for Rockwell Rural, Atwell, Miller’s Ferry and Churchland fire departments.

He built new homes and remodeled others.

Locke probably stayed a volunteer department as long as it did because of Narvie Bonds’ construction business and all the Locke firefighters he ended up employing. If a fire call came in, the men dropped all their tools in place and took off.

“We were gone,” Eric says.

“Bonds Construction kept this place going,” Alexander agrees, sitting with the others in the conference room of the station at N.C. 150 and Briggs Road.

The demand for a Locke Fire Department 60 years ago followed a series of big church fires at Grace Lutheran in 1947, Salem Lutheran in 1951 and St. Mark’s Lutheran in 1954.

Locke started with two 1956 International fire trucks and two identical stations miles apart on N.C. 150. Its coverage area was vast, reaching east into portions of what is Salisbury today and extending west toward Millbridge and beyond.

Today, Locke is a tax-supported fire district with three stations, multi-million dollars in equipment and 24-hour coverage.

In the early years, the department might have 100 to 150 calls a year. Today, the calls for service have grown 10 times. In October alone, the department had 121 calls, Alexander says.

In the middle of all the growth was Narvie Bonds.

“I think his passion — I know his passion — was fire service in Rowan County,” Eric Bonds says. “I think he was a great representative for fire service in Rowan County.”

Delane Turman, one of Narvie Bonds’ longtime assistant chiefs, says Bonds always had a vision, and he wanted Locke to be one of the best volunteer departments in the country.

In Bonds’ years as chief, the department grew from the original two trucks to nine. The turnout gear evolved from nothing, to vinyl coats, plastic helmets and hip boots to today’s high-quality turnout gear and air packs.

The whole department was built on fundraising and the backs of volunteers, Kluttz and Eric Bonds talk about all the fish fries, chicken-and-dumpling dinners, National Sportscaster and Sportswriters banquets, barbecues and fair booths they worked with Narvie.

The Locke station on Grace Church Road was built in 1978 for only $3,000 because materials were donated and community volunteers worked every Saturday in building the station. Kluttz says he and other firemen laid the brick, poured the concrete and nailed on the roof — whatever was needed.

Narvie liked to say it cost more to feed the people working on the station than the station itself. Alexander says the replacement value on that Grace Church Road station today is $350,000, counting an addition that came later.

Eric Bonds grew up going to fires. His father became chief of Locke Fire Department in September 1964, a month before Eric was born. Eric still remembers hopping into a 1960 Dodge pickup with his father and going to fire calls, even when he was in elementary school.

“I was where he was, especially when it came to the fire service,” Eric says. “I was a shadow. He got slower. I got faster.

As a 12- and 13-year-old, Eric would hear an early-morning fire alarm and dress faster than his dad. Eric was out the door and across the road to the station before Narvie, and sometimes he would even jump on a fire truck and leave without his dad.

But Narvie and the fire apparatus usually arrived at the fire at the same time, Eric says.

After each fire, Bonds the chief liked to gather his firefighters around and tell a couple of jokes before they all headed back to the station.

Eric Bonds says there once was a big push for his father to run for the Rowan County Board of Commissioners. The whole county fire service was behind him, Eric says, but Narvie declined. As much as his father liked to talk and socialize, Eric says, he really wasn’t a politician.

But Narvie was a hoarder. He liked to save everything because he thought he could find a use for it later. Metal partition panels from a bathroom salvage operation became, for example, doors to the fire department’s barbecue pits.

Alexander said the fire department didn’t have to buy its first desk until four years ago because of all the ones Bonds had salvaged and supplied over the years.

Eric Bonds says he doesn’t think most of the men and women associated with Locke Fire Department ever looked at Narvie as chief.

“I really think the way everybody looked at him was as a father or brother,” Eric says.

“People didn’t call him chief,” Kluttz confirms.

Turman says Narvie Bonds wasn’t one to stand back and tell people to do this or that. He was usually pitching in right beside you, Turman says.

Narvie was Locke’s Firefighter of the Year on three different occasions, and in 2001, the department’s annual award was named for him.

How did Narvie and Helen Bonds reach a peace that night in 1967 after Narvie had come home as the new president of the county fire association?

He agreed to buy her a new washer and dryer. The man was a leader.

Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or