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A Firefighter's Farewell

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Joe Crockett was with the department for nearly 60 years

By Brian Funk, Editor

Firefighters, ranging from fresh recruits to seasoned veterans gathered outside Vaughan-Guynn Funeral Home on Nov. 11 in their crisp blue dress uniforms and white gloves.

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They spoke quietly and huddled tightly amid dozens of fire engines lining the street.

Each badge bore a black ribbon in remembrance of their lost brother.

The Galax Volunteer Fire Department came together to pay tribute to one of its oldest and most influential members, Joe Crockett.

Crockett, a Galax firefighter for nearly 60 of his 88 years, died on Nov. 8. He was chief of the department for 32 years and is credited with turning it into the professional, respected volunteer organization it is today.

The death of a firefighter is marked with a number of traditions and symbolic gestures, many the general public has never seen. It is similar to the pageantry of a military funeral.

With his stature in the community as a fire department leader — and former manager and 38-year employee of Galax radio station WBOB-AM — drawing dozens to his service, Crockett's funeral exposed many funeral-goers to those rites for the first time.

At the funeral home, Crockett's flag-draped casket was carefully placed in the back of one of the department's oldest fire engines. He was a World War II veteran, serving in the U.S. Navy.

As firefighters from Galax and surrounding areas manned their engines, the one bearing Crockett led a slow convoy from the funeral home to Felts Cemetery on Glendale Road.

As Crockett's engine parked, a double line of firefighters marched into the cemetery, led by Chief David Hankley, fire department chaplain Tom Whartenby and two members carrying Crockett's helmet and a fire axe.

With the firefighters standing at attention, Whartenby spoke about Crockett's life and dedication to the department.

During the eulogy, Crockett's white helmet rested atop the casket. At its base was a plaque and his radio.

Speaking about the fire department's successes and growth since Crockett's time, Whartenby said "this is his legacy. This is what we have to live up to."

Hankley talked about how much the fire department meant to Crockett, a consummate firefighter who "would run toward a burning building when everyone else is running away."

He also spoke about the symbolism of the firefighter's helmet.

Rookies receive orange helmets, known as "punkins," until they earn their status as firefighters. At that time, their helmet is passed through the hands of each firefighter in a ceremony that illustrates carrying on the department's traditions.

At a funeral, the helmet is passed through all those hands again as a final farewell, before it is presented to the family. Each time the helmet changed hands, a firefighter rang a bell on the department's 1930s-era engine.

As the service ends, the firefighters' radios — and the one next to Crockett's grave — crackle and a tone is heard.

"This is the last call for Joseph P. Crockett," the distant dispatcher says.

Miles away, the Galax Volunteer Fire Department's siren wails as those at the funeral bow their heads.