By Bob Hansen
When downtown Richmond exploded and burned in 1968, Bill Hilbert rode on a firetruck from Hagerstown to Richmond to help out.
Within a few years when fire took out half a block in downtown Hagerstown, Bill Hilbert responded.
When a landmark local restaurant caught fire nearly 45 years after that, Bill Hilbert again responded.
“Those are the three big ones that I remember,” Hilbert said of his tenure as a volunteer firefighter.
On Dec. 21, 2017, the Hagerstown Jefferson Township Volunteer Fire Department recognized Hilbert for his half century as a firefighter. At the department’s Christmas dinner, Fire Chief Rick Cole presented him with a plaque in honor of Hilbert’s service to his community.
Hilbert came onto the fire department because a fishing friend asked him to join. Hilbert thinks that was in about 1967 because when a natural gas leak caused a major explosion and fire in downtown Richmond in April 1968, Hilbert had already taken training. He and others from here manned a Richmond fire station so that firefighters from there could go battle that disaster.
Then a few years later, an early morning fire took out wooden buildings east of Walnut Street on the south side of Main Street. Hilbert was among local firefighters who battled to keep the three-story furniture store just east of them from catching fire. He was three hours late to work at the Perfect Circle plant that day.
And on and on he went, making it to about 98 percent of the calls and most of the department’s bimonthly meetings for the past five decades, according to Cole.
When fire burned through the roof of The Mill Room at Willie and Red’s in 2012, Hilbert was among many who kept the fire from spreading into other parts of the restaurant and to the Historic Hagerstown Museum building next door.
“That could have been a disaster,” Hilbert said. “They were able to clean it up and rebuild.”
He’s never really felt like he was in great danger during a fire, attributing that to training. When a firefighter goes into a fire, “You try to keep a couple of guys on the hose and you walk in with it and you walk right out with it.”
Hilbert went to work at Perfect Circle Corp. in the 1950s, starting in Bud Alexander’s cafeteria because he was too young to work around the machines on the factory’s floor. Then he served two years in the Army. Returning home in 1957 as an 18-year-old, he worked a stint in PC’s advertising services and then moved on to the machining floor. In total, his career with PC and then Dana Corp. spanned 42 years.
He also ran a print shop in the rear of a downtown building for several years, printing jobs like instruction manuals for Perfect Circle’s Speed-O-Stat, the forerunner of modern cruise control.
Now retired, Hilbert’s still on the job with the fire department.
“It’s hard to find people like Bill anymore,” Cole said. “Bill has served his community for 50 years. I can depend on Bill showing up more than some of the younger guys. Although Bill can’t go into a burning structure anymore there are still things he can do to help.”
Hilbert attends the meetings where firefighters get training and discuss the previous month’s fires. He helps clean and care for the department’s equipment, which, he says, is a lot better than when he first started. Nowadays, too, firefighters respond to more traffic accidents than fires, he said.
It’s not the fires or accidents that keep him coming back. Through the years, he has enjoyed friendships with the other people on the department. “We’ve had an awful lot of nice people,” Hilbert said. He has served with four chiefs: Bernie Taylor, Myron McCoy, Bill Powell, and Cole.
He’s glad that younger people are joining the department, although it is hard to keep them because so many move away from the area, he said.
“I don’t know how much longer I’ll continue,” Hilbert said. “But then I’ve been saying that for about a year now.”