Wilkerson to take helm of So. Md. firefighters group
Mechanicsville volunteer's 37 years of service began when he was a teenager
Wednesday, April 28, 2010
Willie Wilkerson will be sworn in this weekend as the new president of the Southern Maryland Volunteer Firemen's Association, after 37 years of volunteer service in Mechanicsville and throughout the region.
Born in Fredericksburg, Va., Wilkerson lived briefly with his parents and siblings during the 1960s in Waldorf, where his father worked as a slot machine mechanic.
The young teenager moved in December 1972 to the home of his father and stepmother on Golden Beach Road.
His father, employed by then as a crane operator, had a barber shop in New Market in the same building as a Sunoco station operated by John L. Montgomery, who has been involved with the fire department for almost his entire life. Wilkerson's participation practically was inevitable.
"When I came here, there wasn't a whole lot to do," Wilkerson, now 53, said during a recent interview at the Mechanicsville firehouse on Hills Club Road. "I always liked the fire department, and John Montgomery got me an application. I was 17 when I got in. I figured I would try it, and I'm still here, 37 years later."
Wilkerson was a student at Chopticon High School, and he worked after each class day ended at a grocery store owned by John F. Wood Jr., now a state legislator representing the area. On Monday nights, Wilkerson went to drills and classes at the old firehouse at the intersection of Old Route 5 and what was then Mechanicsville-Chaptico Road.
He remembers going on calls during those early years, before the advent of enclosed firefighting vehicles. "They were very cold [trips] in the wintertime, riding the rear step," he said.
"My senior year in high school, I lived in the firehouse," he said. "We had six bunks in the old kitchen. There was just enough room to get them in there, [and] it was pretty tight quarters. You went home and had your dinner at home, and you took your shower at home, and you slept at the firehouse."
The firehouse had a base radio station, and there also were two-way radios in the firefighting vehicles.
"It was the scanner and the fire alarm, and that's what you were alerted by," Wilkerson said. "Johnny Wood would hate to hear the fire alarm, because some of the employees would leave. In the early years, he used to leave, too."
Wilkerson initially contented himself with general firefighter duties, but within four or five years he began receiving opportunities to do more as his colleagues began electing him to positions such as assistant secretary, treasurer and vice president. The treasurer's position made him familiar with the costs of the department's primary annual fundraiser.
"Through that, you really learned all the aspects of running the carnival," he said, and he wound up being the chairperson of the carnival for about a dozen years.
A top spot in the fire department initially was elusive for Wilkerson.
"I ran for president one time and didn't get it," he said, "and decided I wasn't going to run for another office again. I was still around. At the time, I was living next door, so I was running a lot of calls."
In 1991, however, Wilkerson was elected president of the fire department.
"I just had a bunch of people that came to me, and asked me if I would run," he said, and he held the office for six years.
"Some of them got upset when I gave it up," he said, "but I didn't want to become an institution. Sometimes, new ideas and new blood is what keeps an organization moving. It gives opportunities for other people to do things."
But the job swung back to him five years ago.
"I came back in 2005 and did it again," he said. "The one who was president decided he wasn't going to run. I did it for a couple years until the [next] one was ready."
Moving up the rungs of the Southern Maryland Firemen's Association was a longer process, in part because a large number of St. Mary's firefighters take on its lower-level responsibilities for years, as they move up through its ranks.
Wilkerson, now completing his term as the association's first vice president, was its treasurer for six years.
"The presidency rotates between the three counties," Wilkerson said. "It takes about eight years to get to be president if you're from St. Mary's. It's just the way that it's worked out."
Wilkerson, who works for an automotive supplies business, is joining a short list of Mechanicsville firefighters to previously head the regional association. Henry J. Fowler Sr. was appointed to the post in 1948, the second year of the association's existence, and James F. Mattingly III became its president in 2005 after he left the Mechanicsville fire department as he moved to Calvert County and joined the Solomons fire department.
The association deals with legislative issues, including acquiring low-interest loans for buildings and equipment. The association also arranges training for its firefighters through the Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute.
"Southern Maryland does very well with training," Wilkerson said, as its fire departments avail themselves of funding opportunities to get some extra classes.
The association's officers meet every other month, hold an annual convention each May with a memorial service and represent the organization at funerals. Fundraising events provide assistance for the families of deceased firefighters and law enforcement officers.
The association also addresses emergency management issues, including at the federal level.
"A lot of that trickles down to the [county] fire board, and the local [fire] departments," Wilkerson said.
If you go
The Mechanicsville Volunteer Fire Department will host the 63rd Annual Southern Maryland Volunteer Firemen's Association Parade at 12:30 p.m. this Sunday, May 2, rain or shine. The parade route will travel Old Village Road from Lockes Crossing Road, passing Immaculate Conception Church and a judge's stand at Mechanicsville Road before ending at Hill's Club Road. After the parade, the fire department's carnival grounds will open for food, fun, trophy presentations and competition events among firefighters and emergency medical services.
If you're in the area
Motorists are encouraged to use caution when trying to access Old Village Road and St. Mary's Avenue on Sunday. Old Village Road will be closed from noon to 4 p.m., and Hills Club Road will be closed from noon to 8 p.m. The Mechanicsville Volunteer Fire Department has issued its thanks to the community in advance for its patience for any inconvenience caused by the event and road closures.
The fire department also has acknowledged the assistance of the St. Mary's sheriff's office and county public works' road division, and has expressed its thanks to the Rev. Peter R. Alliata, pastor of the Immaculate Conception Church in Mechanicsville, for changing the date of the church's annual dinner to allow for the parade.