Those were the words of tribute from Keith Hodgkinson during a memorial service in honour of North Huron’s fire chief, who died April 17 just days after announcing to his volunteer crew that he would take a medical leave of absence to battle liver cancer.
“I had the great pleasure of working with John for the past three years. All you had to do was have a conversation with John and you knew there was something special about him. He was a strong leader, a mentor, a true friend,” Hodgkinson, acting fire chief, told about 300 people gathered at the Emergency Services Training Centre in Blyth on Saturday.
At 1:29 p.m., a series of dog howls echoed along Gypsy Lane as a fire truck let out a few quick blasts that began the parade from the arena to the emergency services training centre. North Huron fire fighters in polished boots, white gloves and dress uniform marched alongside the pumper truck and tanker draped with black cotton fabric. They marched under a large Canadian flag held up by two ladder trucks and past saluting OPP officers and crews from neighbouring fire departments who were covering the area for the day. Behind them were a pipe band, colour guard, legion members, emergency personnel, dignitaries and two buses of guests. At the centre, North Huron fire fighters saluted as Black’s wife, daughter, son, brother and other family members exited the fire vehicles and entered the building.
Black is credited for leading the North Huron fire department through the amalgamation of volunteer fire services in Blyth and Wingham, and being the main driver in establishing the technology building at the emergency training centre, where area fire fighters can improve their skills in farm machinery rescue, fire and rescue, auto extrication, silo and grain bin rescue, confined space rescue, propane emergencies and electrical emergencies.
Chaplain Rev. Gary Clark said Black was a teacher and a dreamer, who “saw the potential in an old trailer, a bunch of wrecked cars, a trench and some propane tanks and, of course, the passion in the eyes of a handful of men who wanted to learn and then teach what they had learned.”
He had a vision for something that would “eradicate and redefine what the ESTC could be with daring, hard work and, most of all, co-operation,” Clark said.
All those who paid tribute to the fire chief praised his dedication, leadership and vision.
Fire fighters presented a ceremonial flag to Black’s wife, Cathy, a pillow and medals to his daughter, Rachel, and the chief’s fire fighting helmet to his son, Brandon.
Cathy said her husband was driven by the dread of losing a fire fighter.
“He wanted you to be the best you could be. He wanted to feel he had prepared you for every situation with knowledge and training. If there came a time when he would have to face your family, he could say ‘I did everything possible,’” she said.
Other tributes were paid by: Black’s brother, David; Neil Vincent, who is reeve of the Township of North Huron; Ted Wieclawek, who is fire marshal of Ontario; Carl Pearson, who is president of the Fire fighters Association of Ontario; and Tim Beckett, who is president of Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs.
To see more photos from the tribute service, please visit the photo album.