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For 90th birthday, Barbara Thomason gets a surprise parade of fire trucks

SALISBURY — Surrounded by family members, Barbara Thomason wiped tears from her eyes as she waved to the fire trucks parading by her at Oak Park retirement community on Thursday afternoon.

For someone who worked at the Salisbury Fire Department for decades and was known by hundreds of Rowan County schoolchildren as the “fire lady,” the surprise procession celebrating her 90th birthday couldn’t have been any more perfect.

“I cried, like I always do when I’m happy,” Thomason said. “I just couldn’t believe it was happening.”

In addition to Thomason’s three children, Carol Walter, Cathy Holder and Johnny Thomason, several of her grandchildren and a few of her great-grandchildren were there to partake in the surprise. The parade was organized primarily by Johnny, who serves as fire chief of the Franklin Fire Department. 

Given his position and his family’s firefighting history, Johnny said he didn’t have any trouble cajoling several local fire departments to send trucks to the parade.

The ladder truck leading the parade was from the Salisbury Fire Department, where Thomason worked for over two decades as executive assistant to the fire chief. 

“She’s a great teacher and she’s a great organizer,” Walter said. “I think that’s why she was so good at the fire department and that’s why she stayed so long.”

During her time with the department, Thomason was asked to teach fire safety education to fifth graders across the county. That’s when she earned the reputation as the “fire lady” among school children, who always looked forward to her monthly classroom visits.

“She was really proud when they asked her to teach fire safety in the schools because it had never been done before,” Walter said.

Not only did Thomason work at the central station for the Salisbury Fire Department, but her husband, John, was the fire chief at Franklin Fire Department. John, who died in 2006, also served in the Army. He and Thomason both grew up in Salisbury, but were married in Washington only a few days before his first deployment to Germany.

Thomason and John eventually returned to Salisbury and both got involved with firefighting. Having two parents who worked at fire departments in Rowan County, Carol, Johnny and Cathy spent a lot of time at both of the stations.

“We were there all the time,” Carol said. “It was a huge thing. It gave us a love for firefighters and the fire department as a whole.”

For Johnny, following in his father’s footsteps and becoming a fire chief at the same department was always something he wanted to do.

“It’s in the family,” he said. “It’s a whole different legacy now.”

During her tenure at the Salisbury Fire Department and long after, Thomason was involved in various aspects of the community. She served as a patient advocate at Rowan Regional Medical Center, volunteered at the Abundant Living Adult Day Care center and helped out at the Glenn A. Kiser Hospice House.

“I always liked to be involved,” Thomason said. “I’m a people person and I’ve got more energy than I can use.”

Thomason, whose faith was always “priority one,” also taught Sunday school at Bethel Lutheran Church.

“She used (her faith), even when dad would have to fight serious fires, she would use her calmness and virtues to deal with family members,” Carol said.

Thomason is now an active member at First Baptist Church.

For her 90th birthday, Thomason had two wishes. The first was to see all of her children together in one place, which came true on Thursday afternoon during the fire truck parade. Her second was to see her great-niece, who is flying in for a surprise visit this weekend.

Being able to deliver exactly what Thomason wanted for her birthday was special, Carol said, especially after the pandemic limited how often the family could visit with Thomason in the last year.

“After COVID,” Carol said, “it was very important we were able to grant her wishes because so much of her wishes and desires were taken away from her.”

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