B. Harrison Shipley Jr., 88, fire department historian

September 06, 2002|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

B. Harrison Shipley Jr., a 72-year member of the Ellicott City Volunteer Fire Department and author of a history of Howard County firefighting, died of heart failure Sunday at his Ellicott City home. He was 88.

Mr. Shipley was born into the world of firefighting, spending his early years living above the Ellicott City firehouse at 8316 Main St., where his father, Benjamin Harrison Shipley Sr., was chief of the volunteer company.

He was a 1929 graduate of Ellicott City High School and earned his bachelor's degree from St. John's College in Annapolis in 1933. He was employed for many years as a salesman for Carey Machinery & Supply, selling firefighting equipment, and served in the Army during World War II.

Mr. Shipley became a fire buff as a youngster. One of his jobs was to run down Main Street when an alarm came in and sound the "Big Bell" that called the volunteers to duty.

At 14, he took his first ride to a fire aboard the company's engine, "Big Kate." Even though he was underage, the driver needed someone to ring the bell and young Benjamin excitedly climbed into the cab.

That ride, to a fire in Ilchester, was still fresh in his memory 71 years later, when he was honored by friends and co-workers at the annual Ellicott City Volunteer Department banquet last November.

"`Boy, you get in here and ring this bell,' a firefighter commanded, and it was a thrill," Mr. Shipley said at the time.

In 1930, he formally joined the Ellicott City Volunteer Firemen's Association. He became its captain, and then chief from 1958 until 1978. That year, he was named Howard's fire administrator and director of civil defense by County Executive J. Hugh Nichols, roles he held until retiring in 1981.

He also served as a board member, vice president and president of the Maryland State Firemen's Association.

Mr. Shipley was married in 1940 to the former Bessie Jiricek, and for the first seven years of their marriage, they lived in the Ellicott City fire station, built in 1939 at 8390 Main St. Since 1948, the couple had lived on Hunt Avenue in Ellicott City.

A man of medium build with snow-white hair and dark-rimmed glasses, Mr. Shipley was gifted with an unflappable low-key demeanor.

Mr. Shipley, in his spare time, diligently compiled a history of volunteer and professional firefighting in Howard County in loose-leaf binders, year by year, dating from the department's founding as a volunteer organization in 1888.

In 1988, his illustrated book, Ellicott City Volunteer Firemen's Association Inc., was published on the fire company's 100th anniversary. He was also the author of Remembrances of Passing Days: A Pictorial History of Ellicott City and Its Fire Department, published in 1997.

At his death, Mr. Shipley was still recording the department's history, at work on the binder for 2002.

"He was one of the most unique individuals that I've ever met in my life. He's an institution in Howard County and will be sorely missed, " said County Executive James N. Robey. "He was so committed to the fire service. He ate and slept it, and the only thing more important to him was his wife, Bessie."

"He also had an uncanny memory and kept everything. If I asked him a question, he'd say, `Wait a minute while I pull a folder on that.' One day, we were discussing the Howard County fire tax and he produced all the letters and memos, and they were from the 1950s. It was amazing," Mr. Robey said.

"He always wanted things to be done the right way and was a great teacher. He was always a stickler for details," said John J. Klein, chief of the Ellicott City volunteer company.

"I remember when there was a big fire in Ellicott City in the 1980s, and he called and gave a detailed description of every building in the fire area on Main Street," said Joseph A. Herr, the county's fire and rescue chief. "That kind of knowledge is so valuable.

Mr. Shipley continued to drop into Ellicott City Volunteer Fire Station 2, where he sorted mail, filed paper and chatted with fellow firefighters.

Services were held at the fire house yesterday.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by a stepson, Lawrence E. Bathgate of Easton; two grandchildren; and eight great-grandchildren.

Sun staff writer Julie Bykowicz contributed to this article.

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