Remembering a firefighter, husband, father, grandfather, friend
© Photo courtesy of Action Sport Shots
Grand Falls-Windsor Fire Chief Vince MacKenzie said his father, Vincent (Vince) MacKenzie Sr. had a love for firefighting, and served for 42 years. Even from his hospital bed, he asked about the new aerial ladder pumper the department received early in the 2012, however, he was never able to see it in person. That is why, after being saluted on his journey out of the service, he had his first and final ride on the truck after his funeral service on June 20.
Little boys like vehicles of all kinds, and anything with wheels.
Most like fire engines, enticed by the big red trucks, equipped with lights, sirens, ladders, and the little firefighters behind the wheels.
Some never grow out of it.
A number of families in the Exploits Valley, and province-wide, have a history of firefighting – grandparents, fathers, mothers, sons and daughters protecting their communities together.
This was no different than the MacKenzie father and son who served more than two decades together in Grand Falls-Windsor.
And even when one of these family members pass on, the family beliefs live on in their children and grandchildren.
Grand Falls-Windsor Fire Chief Vince MacKenzie sat down with the Advertiser to reminisce about his father, Vincent (Vince) MacKenzie Sr., who passed away on June 16, and to whom the fire chief credits his love for firefighting.
At the age of 18, MacKenzie Sr. was one of the first members to join the then Grand Falls Fire Department when the town incorporated in 1962 and the department changed from the mill fire brigade which protected the town, to a municipal department.
“Growing up as a young child, watching Dad serve and run away from the Christmas dinners...I knew nothing else. I grew up in the fire department, tagging around with him, just like my daughter (Chelsea) did with me, and it just rubbed off to the point where I wanted to be a firefighter as well.”
Chief MacKenzie said growing up on Lincoln Road – the same street as the fire station - his memories of the fire department go way back to before there were pagers, when a fire horn would go off - similar to a fog horn - alarming the town there was a fire.
“I remember every time the fire horn would go in town I would know that Dad was going somewhere,” Chief MacKenzie said. “As a young boy I used to chase him to fires on my bike.”
Also at that time, the dispatcher would pick up one receiver at the fire station and a call would go back to every firefighter in town – with one long, steady ring.
“They would pick up the phone and listen to where the fire was and put the phone down and take off for the fire hall,” Chief MacKenzie said. “I can remember it was such a privilege I knew before all the other kids where the fire was in town because I would hear the alarm coming in or answer the alarm and shout it out to Dad as he is going out the door.
“Then I would get out on the front lawn and wait for the trucks to come down over the road and every time they would come down over the road it would be Dad at the wheel. And he would always wave as they were going by.”
He also remembers a devastating fire when he was in Grade 3 where four children died.
“One of them sat behind me in school, (and) was one of my friends,” Chief MacKenzie said. “The fire was on top of Lincoln Road…the O’Driscoll fire, 1972. I remember waking up in the nighttime and hearing my dad having nightmares about this fire because he had actually found one of the victims. He knew all four of those kids, he knew the family. These were kids that lived four or five doors away from the fire station at the time. So here I was in Grade 3, and went to the funeral home, but it was such a traumatic thing…the community was devastated…but I still remember the undying pride that I had for my father because he had tried to make a difference, (even though) it did take an emotional toll on him.”
In Grade 6, he had another realization of firefighting – the danger it could become, when the Alteens Jewelry Store burned down.
“The boys came back from the fire, I remember them coming through the door…and they were joking then at how he had taken it,” Chief MacKenzie said. “One of the plate glass windows up on the second floor of Alteens blew out and landed down on the crew to the point where the black helmet that (Dad) has actually has the gouge on the back of the helmet where the helmet had basically saved his life.
“That’s the only time I think that I ever realized how close we were probably to losing Dad then, and they just shook it off as just another day at work.”
Those are the kind of memories that he grew up with, the chief said, and it all just drove him even more to want to be a firefighter.
“Those kind of experiences play hard on a young kid,” Chief MacKenzie said. “I think I consider myself blessed in a way to grow up with that kind of role model...He was a dad that was easy to be proud of.”
Chief MacKenzie said as soon as he was old enough to join, he did, and for the next 21 years, he and his father were running to calls together.
“From my perspective, he was my greatest mentor... he certainly formed my passion for it,” he said. “He was the driving force behind what I do.”
Chief MacKenzie said he responded to many calls with is father, who always drove the truck - because of his close proximity to the fire station he would be one of he first to arrive.
“Then when I joined, and Dad became an officer, so many times we would still hit the fire hall first – both of us together – and then I would drive and he would be the officer in charge of the truck.”
And upon returning from a call, he said he and his father would sit down and talk about it together.
“It was a very unique situation for a young firefighter to be in because you get mentored not only in the fire hall but also at home,” he said.
It wasn’t just the MacKenzies, there were a number of second and third generation firefighters, like the Wheelers, Barrys, Jesseaus, and Moores, he said.
“It was almost like a firefighting family back then,” he said. “It’s true that firefighting kind of rubs off on the generations. Many fire halls have second, third and fourth generation firefighters. It’s just the way of life you grow up to.
Chief MacKenzie said his father was not the type of person to ignore a fire call. In fact, he can’t remember him ever not responding to a call – something that was ingrained in the chief as well.
“He was one of the spark plugs of the fire department,” he said.
“I think compassion is the big word. You end up in a family with so much compassion for total strangers that you have no choice, it rubs off. I believe we all here in the fire hall serve in our own way. This is about the fire service and Dad was just an example of what the fire service was. This is not about the Mackenzies…this is about the fire service in general, because that is the true spirit of what we are doing and that’s what holds the people together here.”
The fire department is about all the men and women who serve there, he said.
“People don’t know who they are calling when they pick up the phone and phone the fire department,” the chief said. “They don’t know who’s coming. But it’s a dad, and it’s a son, or a husband or a wife that’s answering that call, and it’s not just a firefighter. It’s a very personal person and that’s what Dad was.”
Mackenzie Sr. wasn’t just a firefighter. He was well known as a caring, community-minded individual. He was well-known throughout the province as a certified gunsmith, and a provincial champion trap shooter. He also worked at B and B Sports for a number of years, which is where Mike Goodyear’s first memories of him began.
Goodyear served in the fire department with Mackenzie Sr. from 1984 until 2004, when Mackenzie Sr. retired due to health issues after serving 42 years, and was the last original member when he retired.
He said when he joined the fire department, MacKenzie Sr. was a big figure to him, he said.
“I looked up to him with a great amount of admiration and respect,” Goodyear said. “His work and decisions at fires to me were always accurate and correct, above reproach, his orders were to be followed to the letter.”
He was very good to get along with, Goodyear added, and was very eager to pass on his knowledge and would explain to younger firefighters why they do what they do.
“I learned from him how to pump a fire truck,” Goodyear said. “A lot of people will say someone was great after they passed away, Vince was the firefighter you always looked up to right from day one. He didn’t have to earn your respect, he had it the instant you walked in the door.”
The first day Chief Mackenzie woke up without his Dad was Father’s Day.
However, he said, his father had a hard battle for the past number of years.
“Dad was a diabetic so he ended up losing his legs through complications with cardiovascular disease basically,” Chief MacKenzie said. “It was a slow deterioration.
But his determination showed through, even in his wheelchair, he said, nothing slowed him down.
Then he had a stroke.
“It was very painful to watch at times to see…to me, Dad was such a pillar of the community and such a pillar in my life, to slowly deteriorate to the point where it was heartbreaking but at the same point it was an honour because I new the history, and I didn’t realize that the community knew the history a well,” Chief MacKenzie said.
Funeral services took place on Wednesday, June 20, and included an honour guard, and a bag piper.
“I didn’t feel the sorrow that most people will feel at the funeral, as much as I felt pride,” Chief MacKenzie said. “It was my honour to carry him out. Then we put him on the new aerial ladder truck.”
Even from a hospital bed, Vince Sr. would always ask about the fire department, and asked numerous times about the new aerial pumper truck the department received earlier this year.
Chief MacKenzie took pictures of the new truck to show his father, but said his father wanted so badly to see the truck, and he was hoping he would get well enough so he could bring the truck outside the hospital to show him.
“But he never got to that point,” Chief MacKenzie said. “When it came to the funeral when the boys were talking about the truck…I said ‘boys, you know he never did get to see the aerial, so maybe it’s time, if we are going to put him on a truck, lets put him on there so he will have a ride on it if nothing else.’ So that’s what we did. It was special.”
Chief MacKenzie said he can’t explain the honours that the fire department put on his father during the funeral, and the support from the community.
“What the whole family appreciated was the outpouring of support for us and him and the respect that he had was incredible,” Chief MacKenzie said. “For me and the whole family, it’s so fitting…he had such a turmoil in the last seven or eight years, but it was never forgotten what he had done for the community.”