For 65 years, Millard Purcell was a fixture at the Bel Air Volunteer Fire Co.

Last siren calls firefighter, 88

August 18, 2004|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

For three days, an honor guard has stood solemn watch at the firehouse in Bel Air, keeping vigil over a casket flanked by well-worn uniforms, firefighters' memorabilia -- and a glistening coffee pot.

Today, members of the Bel Air Volunteer Fire Company will lay to rest their longest-serving colleague: Fire Chief Emeritus Millard Purcell, whose death Friday at the age of 88 ended a 65-year career during which he responded to 35,416 calls -- nearly 2,000 of them last year.

"Millard was the kind of guy we all want to be like," said Fire Chief Tom Schaech, who served with Purcell for more than 30 years. "When the sirens blew, he had a creed that said, `Somebody needs help and I am coming.' He could hold his own with the younger ones, and he was still pitching in until a few weeks ago."

Bel Air volunteers have been preparing to honor Purcell since the call went out Friday announcing his death from heart failure after a number of illnesses.

Within minutes, nearly 70 volunteers had arrived at the firehouse. They draped the entrance in black bunting and tied black ribbon to every piece of equipment. They made the station comfortable for the expected crush of mourners, and they drilled on funeral protocol well into the next morning.

Reminders of their long-serving colleague were displayed in the community room: the turnout gear with his captain's helmet; the red jumpsuit, cowboy hat and boots, which were his typical firehouse attire; the baseball cap and nylon jacket bearing the station's logo.

The coffee pot that he kept perking through all hours sat with an empty cup and a sign that echoes his familiar call of "Fresh coffee ready." The old mo-ped that Purcell used for the short ride from his home is gone -- he said his wife made him get rid of it. His red Taurus sedan is parked in front of the station.

Michael Valle, an emergency medical technical and 17-year volunteer, recalled seeing the octogenarian in the fitness room, lifting weights or walking on the treadmill.

"He could still pull a hose and help clean up until the last piece was back," Valle said. "And, of course, the man was always making coffee."

Even at 88, Purcell was not the oldest Maryland volunteer. That honor belongs to Austin Smith from Oxford on the Eastern Shore, who -- in his 90s -- has amassed 76 years of service, according to the Maryland State Firemen's Association.

Purcell was born in 1915 in a house that once stood across the street from the 33,000-square-foot firehouse built in 1999. He spent his life in Harford County. After graduating from Bel Air High School, he went to work building aircraft for Martin Marietta and during a 25-year career helped with several NASA projects.

He later spent nearly 15 years as a dispatcher for Harford County's emergency operations -- often joining the firefighters he had sent to the scene.

"Whether he was at the firehouse, at home or on the job, he tried not to miss a fire call," said Rich Gardner, fire company spokesman. "When he retired, he always came when the siren blew."

Last year, Purcell was honored by the Maryland State Firemen's Association for responding to 1,861 fire calls. That means he was either at the firehouse when a call came in or showed up for calls -- anything from a hint of smoke to a full-blown fire, according to Rich Gardner, spokesman for the fire company. In some cases, Purcell went along with the trucks; in other cases he provided support at the firehouse, Gardner said.

Including requests for emergency medical care and other calls, the Bel Air company gets about 7,000 a year.

Harford County Executive James M. Harkins, who as a teenager was a volunteer when Purcell was company chief, said: "Millard exemplifies what volunteerism is all about."

Purcell and the former Marguerite Culver were married for 61 years. The family grew to include two daughters -- Pam Purcell of Bel Air and Janice Whitzel of Chesapeake, Va. -- two granddaughters and eight great-grandchildren.

"He told me before we got married not to interfere with him and the firehouse," Marguerite Purcell said. "It was his dream to be there ever since he was a little boy watching the horse carts pull the fire equipment."

She long ago adjusted to her husband's sudden departures in response to a fire call.

"He would leave the supper table, the restaurant, the church," she said. "I would heat a meal twice. After that, I told him to eat out."

At the firehouse this week, photographs from Purcell's long service lined the walls. In one, a young Purcell poses next to what was then his company's new fire truck, the 1939 Mack that will carry him to funeral services today.

Purcell's lifelong friend and former Fire Chief Donald MacLean will be driving. Purcell pulled a young MacLean into the fire service 51 years ago. Both men had turns as fire chief, but they preferred working in the trenches, MacLean said.

The service begins at 11 a.m. at Bel Air United Methodist Church, after which the Mack truck will stop briefly at the firehouse on Hickory Avenue. There the siren will blow three times, and Schaech will announce Purcell's last call to duty over the radio. As the Mack makes its way to the cemetery, dozens of modern trucks and hundreds of volunteer firefighters will follow as the old courthouse bell tolls in tribute.

"We owe it to one of our own to send him off in memorable fashion," said Schaech.

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