On journalists’ lists of preferred stories to cover, awards dinners – with rambling speeches and inside jokes -- usually fall somewhere between sewer authority meetings and shopping center openings.
So when I was assigned to cover the annual awards dinner for Goodwill Fire Co. No. 1 in Trexlertown Saturday evening, I arrived at the Willow Tree Grove banquet hall in Orefield with a let’s-get-this-thing-over-with attitude.
Then something happened. As the night wore on, evidence of the extraordinary commitment these volunteers have made to their communities and the camaraderie and genuine admiration they have for each other melted my cold journalistic heart.
Listening to the speeches and jokes, it became clear that the loyalty and respect was earned over years of late night fire calls and early morning accident scenes, of hoagie sales and fastnacht fundraisers. Members seemed to ascribe to a common ethos and tradition that they passed along to their kids.
Take the three generations of the Gorr family. Gary Gorr is president of the fire company and his wife Linda is president of the ladies auxiliary. Their daughter, Jamie, was the first female firefighter on the fire team and is also financial security officer of the ladies auxiliary. Jamie’s grandmother, Elizabeth Gorr, is a past auxiliary president and a member for 40 years. Linda’s mother, Daris Gross, is the chaplain of the ladies auxiliary and Linda’s sister, Lucy Kline, is treasurer.
When Linda’s father, former Goodwill Fire Chief Fred Gross, died in 2011, the company turned out en masse for his funeral.
“Our family was overwhelmed with what this fire company and fire team did with respect to my father,” Linda said. “Every one of them in uniform standing at attention, saluting my father.”
Between keeping up with training and responding to calls, the fire team is like a second job – only the members don’t get paid. John Grantz, the member who won the award for going out on the most calls, went to 206 in 2011. That’s almost four a week.
Running the company, equipping and training firefighters isn’t cheap. Upper Macungie Township contributes generously, Linda said. But the fire team and auxiliary also run hoagie sales, crafts shows, an annual fund drive, monthly breakfasts and – the big one – a fastnacht (doughnut) sale shortly before Lent begins. About 300 volunteers make 4,000 dozen fastnachts.
According to the National Association of Towns and Townships, volunteer firefighters save communities about $128 billion a year and make up 71 percent of all American firefighters.
I asked Linda Gorr if she and other fire company members ever calculated how much they would have made if they had been paid for all the time they put in. She laughed and said, “We wouldn’t be making doughnuts.”
Gorr traced the strong bond I witnessed Saturday night to a certain generosity of spirit.
“It’s that type of person who volunteers who creates that bond,” she said. “It’s the families that have been part of it for such a long time.”
Those who fear our personal and community connections are becoming frayed in a digital world of e-mailing and texting and tweeting should have been at the banquet Saturday night. It was like stepping back in time.