There were funny stories, good memories and serious moments, too. Through it all, it was easy to tell the impact Don Yonce has had on the Hillsville Fire Department during his 51 years of service to the local organization.
On July 30, members of the Hillsville Fire Department gathered for a special meal to honor Yonce and his more than half of a century with the group. Although he is not retiring and will still be around the department to help out, Yonce is stepping away from answering fire calls.
“I have thoroughly enjoyed being a member of this fire department. I appreciate the work that everybody is doing. As long as I am able to come down here, I still got my pager. I still got my radio,” Yonce told the department. “And when I can get down here during the day, if they need something I can still drive a truck.”
Hillsville Fire Chief Donnie Spangler said the dinner was in appreciation to Don for his many years of service to the department. Chaplain Tommy Lintecum summed up Yonce’s impact to the department and area elegantly in his prayer before dinner.
“Father be with Don and bless his family for they have put in many years of service into this fire department and this community,” Lintecum said. “Lord they have made Hillsville a better place to live.”
Spangler said as chief, one of his favorite things is to listen to the older guys on the department like Yonce and hear the stories of their experiences over the years. He said it is amazing how much the fire department has changed since Yonce joined in 1967.
“And the thing I can remember about Don was the stories about the old funeral home days when they use to run EMS, too. I used to love listening to them because I would laugh and be amazed at how things have changed,” Spangler said. “And for those who don’t know, Don started in Wytheville and the funeral home did all the EMS. They use to go out and buy the biggest hearse they could find with the biggest engine in it and see how fast they would run. When the phone rang and they needed an ambulance, they would listen and see if the troopers would get dispatched on the wreck and both funeral home companies would race to the wreck to see who could get their first. It’s just amazing. You younger guys need to sit down and listen to them. They will tell you some stories.”
Spangler then thanked Yonce for his service, adding he couldn’t say enough about him and the years he has put into the fire department. As a token of appreciation, Yonce was presented with a shadow-box made by department members with Hillsville Fire Department-related items and a fireman’s flag. Yonce was then given a very special item – his firefighter helmet signed by each member of the department.
He said when he first started with Hillsville Fire, the firehouse was located on Main Street. At that time the department had three trucks – a 1956 Chevrolet Pumper, an A model Ford and a tanker that was donated by San Griggs.
“And that gives you a good appreciation of what we have today,” Spangler said. “Sadly, there are still a lot of stations and agencies that run stuff like that today.”
At that point, the meal started to turn into a roast with fellow firefighters telling humorous stories about Yonce. In particular, Erroll Rhea Jett had the department in stitches with a tale about Yonce, also a long-time employee of Vaughan-Guynn-McGrady Funeral Home.
“I will never forget the first time that Bob Martin wrecked his motorcycle. He pulled beside the church and he forgot to turn and he hit the curb next to the Colonial Apartments,” Jett said. “Don and I were the first ones there and it knocked Bob out for a few minutes. He woke up and he said, ‘The first voice I heard was Don Yonce. Oh hell, I am at the funeral home.’”
Another long-time Hillsville Fire Department member, Russell Burkholder talked about the troubles the department had in the Shorts Creek section of Carroll County in past years. He said Yonce had a mishap there initially and another time Burkholder and Gene Musser got t-boned under a stoplight in Shorts Creek, beating up the same truck.
“We went a few more years, fixed the same truck up and we had a flue fire and we got there in the old pickup we had. And Don and somebody were coming with the tanker. We kept digging the fire out of the flue and digging and kept wondering where is the tanker at, where is the tanker at? And somebody made a comment they aren’t going to be here with the tanker,” Burkholder said. “And I said, ‘What’s wrong?’ and he said, ‘I am afraid Don and Roger are in the river. A gas tanker was in the road and to miss the gas tanker they put it in the river.’”
Yonce said that was not exactly how the story went. He said a man and his wife and a little boy were in a car and they wanted to see the fire.
“I had went to get a load of water and when I came back around the curve all I could see was that little boy looking out the back window of that car,” Yonce said. “It was either hit them or go down over the bank and lay it over, so I went down the back and laid it over.”
And then Spangler got the crowd back in stitches talking about Yonce’s “road rage.”
“I can remember several fires we were going out on and somebody get in front of us and wouldn’t pull over or would pretty much stop or slow down in the road,” Spangler said. “Don would roll the window down and a few words would come out of his mouth and he never missed a beat.”
After the laughter died down, Gene Musser turned the evening back to a serious note.
“Don, it has been an honor and a privilege,” he said. “I wish we could do 50 more.”
Yonce’s son, Greg, a member of Hillsville Town Council, said he knew his dad would like to do 50 more.
“Just so you guys know about his dedication, I have a little story. Barry Hicks used to live beside of us years and years ago and he was on the fire department. And this was when daddy and Carl Harmon and a couple of guys would go frog gigging a lot on Friday and Saturday nights,” Greg Yonce said. “Well, he stepped in the hole and broke his ankle, but that didn’t stop him from coming to any fires. He would run out in the road and flag Barry down and stop him to make him drive him to the fire department. He would come on his crutches and his cast and be down here at the fire house.”
Spangler said there was never any concern about Yonce’s dedication to the fire department.
“There have been a few times he has left ball games and leaving on the road to vacation heading to the beach. I know he met Gene Musser one time coming down Montley Hill and he turned around and said, ‘We are going to the firehouse, guys,’” Greg Yonce said. “Four hours later we might be headed to the beach.”
After the ceremony, Don Yonce said he has loved working with and helping so many people over the past five decades with the Hillsville Fire Department.
“I have enjoyed all these years and if I could do it again I would do it again,” he said.
Allen Worrell can be reached at (276) 779-4062 or on Twitter@AWorrellTCN