The year Millard Purcell joined the Bel Air Volunteer Fire Company, Franklin D. Roosevelt was president, John Steinbeck published The Grapes of Wrath and The Wizard of Oz was playing in first-run movie theaters.
It was 1939, and the 23-year-old from Bel Air wanted to help those he knew were in need whenever he heard the fire alarm. Like his elder brother, Edward, he became a firefighter.
Sixty-four years later, FDR, Steinbeck and Judy Garland are gone, but Millard Purcell is still a volunteer firefighter.
And not just any firefighter. Last year, Purcell was the state's top emergency responder, hot-footing it from his house nearby to the fire station for 1,861 calls, a record for which the Maryland State Firemen's Association honored him at a dinner Wednesday at the Bel Air firehouse.
"If you had to look up the word commitment in the dictionary, there would be a picture of Millard there," said Ernie Crist, emergency services manager for Harford County.
Purcell, 87, is the volunteer firefighting equivalent of Cal Ripken, said County Executive James M. Harkins, who as a teen-ager was a volunteer when Purcell was company chief. Others "have wilted and gone off, including me," but Purcell has remained, Harkins said.
Purcell was born in 1915 in a house less than a mile from the current fire station. His eyes are magnified behind his bifocals, thick glasses in thick maroon frames, as he points to a picture of the house, which is no longer there.
On his first call in 1939, there was no phone call or page to alert him. Instead, Purcell heard the bell from the fire station as he was walking down the street. He turned and ran, heading for the station so that he could jump on a truck and help.
The call was for an electrical fire in Churchville, and Purcell never stopped to think about what he was doing - and he didn't stop to put on helmet, boots, coat or any of the other gear firefighters wear today. Back then, that wasn't unusual. The firetrucks would take what firefighters they could, even if it meant picking them up along the street en route to the emergency.
"They'd pick you up regardless of clothes," Purcell said. Men would enter burning buildings with only handkerchiefs over their mouths to keep out the smoke and ash. Purcell didn't get his first helmet until later that year, an aluminum one that was lighter but less durable than modern helmets, which are made of synthetic materials.
Nor was the emergency equipment anything special back then, in some cases just a sledgehammer and an ax.
In his dashes for the fire station, Purcell sometimes left behind dates at movies or restaurants as he sprinted out the door to answer the fire alarm.
Once, he and a friend left their dates at dinner, only to return unexpectedly: The firetruck, which they followed in Purcell's friend's car, took them back to Purcell's parked car, where the front seat was burning from a discarded cigarette.
After he married in 1943, Purcell kept up his firefighting. His wife and, eventually, two daughters all knew that when the siren called, Purcell would go. Sometimes he would bring his younger daughter, Pamela, to the station, where she would watch television while awaiting his return from a call. "I spent a lot of time waiting," Pamela said.
She didn't understand as a small child. "You have no concept of it when you're little," she said. But as time went on, she realized that her father was out helping people. "And that was really honorable," she said.
Over the years, Purcell served in a number of offices, each time giving the company the effort he felt was his duty. In the hall of the current fire station is a plaque full of bronze name plates, one of which bears Purcell's name, for his 1970-1971 term as fire chief, a job he found taxing.
"There's a lot to it," Purcell said. "You've got to watch your men; you've got to watch your equipment."
Purcell's job is a little different these days. A broken ankle in 2001 made it hard for him to put on the heavy boots, so when the pager at his side calls, Purcell instead holds down the fort while his younger counterparts ride the trucks.
The dedication that Purcell has shown to the volunteer fire company has carried over into other parts of his life. He and his wife, Marguerite, will celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary in September. He has been a member of Bel Air United Methodist Church for more than 60 years and has lived in the same house in Bel Air since 1928.
"I figured somebody was in trouble when the whistle blows, and I wanted to help," Purcell said. "That was my motto, more or less."