Greenport’s Bob White honored for 65 years of fire service

KATHARINE SCHROEDER PHOTO | Bob White addresses a crowd of well-wishers at a ceremony in Greenport Sunday. Guests included Senator Ken LaValle, Greenport mayor David Nyce, Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell, a representative from Governor Cuomo's office and many of Mr. White's family and friends.

When Bob White turned 21, it was a very big year.

In 1946, he came home to Greenport a victorious warrior, his days in the Army infantry behind him. In World War II’s last days he crossed the Rhine and fought in the Battle of the Bulge. When the fighting stopped, he was among millions of young veterans suddenly facing the challenge of finding a job and starting a peacetime life.

2012 is also a big year for Mr. White, who on Sunday was honored for 65 years of continuous service to the Greenport Fire Department, a record that may have no equal locally.

For all the praise heaped upon him during the celebration at the Third Street fire station, Mr. White remained philosophical about reaching his milestone. Just weeks away from turning 86, he’s still an active department member and only stopped hopping on trucks and racing to when he turned 80.

“A lot of people get a 25-year badge and retire, but I kept on going,” he said. The ex-chief remains involved in the department’s scholarship and fundraising committees.

When he turned 80, Mr, White quipped, “it would take me half an hour to get dressed for a call. The building would be gone by then.”

Joining the fire department wasn’t his first priority when he returned from the war.

“There were millions of guys coming home at the time and there were no jobs available,” he said. He took what he thought would be a temporary job at his family’s store, White’s Hardware, which opened on lower Main Street in 1930.

“I had no interest in the store business,” he said. “I went there to help out.”

He ended up doing much more than that and ran the store until he sold it in 1991. “Forty-six years later, I finally ended my temporary job,” Mr. White said.

His interest in the fire department also turned out to be far from a passing fancy.

“All kids have a desire to drive fire trucks,” said Mr. White, who has also served as a member of the Greenport Village Board. “I guess I was no different from anybody else.”

Throughout the years, he manned a pumper, fulfilled his wish to drive the truck and, in the mid-1950s, served three years as chief.

“In the fire department you might think you’ve seen it all, but then you learn you haven’t,” he said. “I have seen a lot.”

That includes the late 1970s blaze that destroyed Mitchell’s harborfront restaurant and marina, a blaze that forever changed the face of Greenport. The property is now Mitchell Park, home to a carousel and ice rink.

Mr. White also knew the two young firefighters who died after entering a burning house in the belief that a child was trapped inside.

He worked the lower Main Street fire, also in the late ’70s, that destroyed five stores — and almost his own.

“If it wasn’t for the driveway we put separating our building from the others, the hardware store would have gone, too,” Mr. White recalled.

And he was in turnout gear for another blaze best remembered for what didn’t happen. The department managed to contain an office fire on the wharf where Crabby Jerry’s bar and restaurant now stands, preventing the flames from reaching seven adjacent overhead fuel tanks.

“If one of those had gone, that would have taken out most of the businesses,” he said.

A number of dignitaries, including state Senator Kenneth LaValle, were present for Sunday’s celebration.

“It’s such an asset to the community to have that kind of continuity in a department that represents a cross-section of our community,” said Mayor David Nyce.

He added that Bob and Lil, his wife of 63 years, were the first people he met after moving to the village. “They’re just wonderful people,” the mayor said.

The Whites were also honored last fall, serving as grand marshals of the Maritime Festival parade.

Said Southold Supervisor Scott Russell, “Bob is a man who has served his country and has served his community in so many ways and for so long that any words I can offer would fall far short of what he has meant to this community.”

The supervisor did needle the guest of honor, noting that his mother was only 6 when Mr. White’s fire service began.

Mr. White offered a simple bit of advice to young firefighters; “Keep your eyes open and your head down.”

He plans to serve alongside them as long as he can. “I never lost the enthusiasm for the fire department,” he said.

And he’ll continue to serve if he reaches 100, “the good lord willing.”

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