Williamsburg fire chief stepping down after 47 years of service
WILLIAMSBURG — Fire Chief Donald Lawton has been on the Williamsburg Fire Department since he was 18 years old, and on April 29 he will officially hang up his fire helmet for good.
“Don has done so much for this town,” Select Board member Denise Banister said. “There is going to be a huge hole when he leaves.”
Turning 65 this year, state regulations dictate that Lawton must retire.
“It’s been a long time, 47 years,” Lawton said, sitting in the kitchen of his home recently. “I have been very lucky to have worked with a great group of people. Any one of them would watch your back, and you theirs, and it has always been that way.”
Throughout his years on the job, Lawton has seen a lot of change on the force, including improvements in vehicles, gear, tools and modes of communication.
“When I first joined the department, if there was a fire, a siren would go off and we would get calls on our home telephones. After that, we had these very large radios. Today, it’s all about these things,” he said, gesturing to the cellphone he held in his hand. “They are much smaller and easy to carry around.”
Lawton chuckled as he described the old pumper truck the department used to have when he first started.
“I remember when we still had a 1937 Reo that could only do 30 miles an hour,” he said. “There were times where someone would have to stand on the running board to manually work the windshield wipers.”
Lawton said the most memorable fire he ever fought was on Oct. 2, 1972, at the Nobel Manufacturing Complex that used to be on South Main Street in Haydenville.
“That was a huge 3½ story manufacturing complex that burned to the ground,” he said. “They never did find out the cause of that fire but they think it was set.”
Today, the number of volunteer firefighters is down to half of what it used to be when Lawton joined the department. The chief attributes this to the fact that more residents used to work in town, which made it easier to be available to respond to calls.
“Back then we used to have 40 firefighters, 20 in each station (Williamsburg and Haydenville). Today we have 22 total,” Lawton said. “We have been very lucky, though, because we have picked up some really good young people,” including three who are now going to the Massachusetts Firefighting Academy.
The Williamsburg department is a volunteer on-call department with a part-time fire chief.
“Firefighters get a small stipend every time they are called to a fire,” said Town Clerk Brenda Lessard. The fire department’s annual budget is $72,463, of which $20,525 is salary for the chief.
Dedication to duty
Lawton said he and his fellow firefighters have been lucky to escape many situations without any serious injury over the years.
The chief did recall one injury he received when he was accidently hit in the face with an oxygen bottle worn by a firefighter as they were battling a blaze in Westhampton.
“They wanted the ambulance to take me to the hospital, but I didn’t think it was that bad. So, I drove myself to the hospital, got nine stitches under my eye, and went back to the fire,” he said.
It is that sort of dedication to duty that Lawton has become known for.
“Whenever you need something done, you can always count on Don to be there,” Banister said.
Banister, who is also the town’s emergency management director, said Lawton has served Williamsburg in several capacities.
“He has been a field driver and animal inspector, he has been on the Board of Health, and will continue to be our plumbing and gas inspector,” Banister said. “He was also a mentor to me when I became the emergency management director for the town,” she said.
Lawton said that while he will miss the job, he is thrilled about having more time to spend with his wife, Jackie, his three daughters, Kathy, Jessie and Pam (both Jessie and Pam served on the fire department in the past) and his four grandchildren.
“I am really looking forward to being in the pool with my grandkids,” he said. “I have been married for 44 years, but this June was the first time we have really been able to get away and it was very nice.”
An avid outdoorsman, Lawton is also excited to have more time to spend outside.
“I like to hunt, fish and shoot, ride my RTV (rough terrain vehicle), take my boat out with the family and just enjoy country things,” he said.
Still, while he will have more free time, he doesn’t plan to fill it all with relaxation.
“I like to work. The harder the work, the better,” Lawton said. “I have a little mini-excavator so I am looking forward to doing some work with that. We are also still doing renovations on the house,” he said.
Lawton’s family roots in Williamsburg go back to the early 1800s, before which his family lived in Chesterfield. His boyhood home on Route 9 in Williamsburg, where he now lives, was built in 1831.
Lessard said the eight-member search committee for a new fire chief will make its final recommendations to the Select Board in mid-April. It is hoped that the position will be filled by the end of May.
Until a new chief is in place, Deputy Chief Donald Turner will respond to fire calls and Lawton will take care of administrative duties.
Lawton became fire chief in 1999 when Williamsburg’s former chief, Roger Bisbee, retired. Bisbee is also on the search committee for the new chief.
“Don was a good deputy fire chief who had a lot of abilities,” Bisbee said. “He always had this way of immediately recognizing what needed to be done at the scene of a fire. That was an excellent quality, and he was always able to get things done.”
Lawton said that he didn’t want to make any drastic changes before leaving the department, in the hopes that the new chief will make his or her own mark on the job while taking the department forward.
“I have no special advice for the new chief. I will be around to help or talk with whoever takes over and they can always ask me questions,” Lawton said.
“The only thing that I will say is, learn how to handle the budget and keep it solvent because you never know when something is going to happen.”