Retired Goshen Fire Chief Francis Dresser dies at 89, instrumental in Hilltown ambulance services

Last modified: Thursday, September 04, 2014

GOSHEN — “The Hilltowns have lost a pioneer, mentor and friend,” Goshen Fire Chief Sue Labrie said Tuesday of the passing of retired chief Francis Dresser, who died at his Main Street home Sunday.

Dresser, 89, served the Goshen Fire Department for 55 years until retiring in 2006 at the age of 81.

“Francis had a way about him. You were kind of drawn to him because he was very friendly and welcoming,” Labrie said. “He is the one that got (my husband) Bob and I to join the Fire Department when he did our home smoke alarm inspection” shortly after they arrived in Goshen about 20 years ago.

“He was ahead of his time,” she added. “Your politics, religion, class, race or gender didn’t matter to him. If you were able-bodied, he wanted you in the department.

Dresser was known as a mover-and-shaker whose friends described as a man of little words who got a lot done. Some of his accomplishments include creating a communications system in Goshen for emergency responders, founding the Goshen Ambulance Service and being a pivotal player in the creation of Highland Ambulance EMS Inc.

“I’ve known Francis all my life,” retired Goshen firefighter, selectman and town moderator Tommy Thomas said. “He was my guiding light. He was special to me, and special to this town.”

During World War II, Dresser was stationed in the Pacific as a corporal in the U.S. Army 96th Infantry. His time in the service and his experience on the battlefield helped shape the rest of his life.

“He told me that during the war, he witnessed some pretty nasty things. He made a promise to God that if he got home safely, he would dedicate his life to helping others,” Thomas said. “He certainly fulfilled that promise.”

Dresser opened an electronics store in Goshen in 1947 and joined the fledgling Goshen Fire Department. He was appointed chief in 1951 at age 26.

In the early 1960s, Dresser became the chief engineer at New England Public Radio station WFCR in Amherst which began broadcasting in 1962.

“My father basically built the radio station. When he started it was just a transmitter on Mount Lincoln in Pelham,” said Dresser’s son, Goshen Deputy Fire Chief Kim Dresser. He said his father remained at the radio station as its chief engineer for 12 years.

With a background in electronics and communications, Dresser took it upon himself to erect a communications tower at his home, so that Goshen could have an emergency dispatch service. It was run out of his house by his wife Ruth who served as the department’s radio operator, as did some of his children, Kim, Kip and Kit.

Cummington Fire Chief Bernard Forgea said Dresser and his family were “resilient and enduring” and they “did so much and really sacrificed a lot for the community.”

Dresser was one of the founders of the Goshen Ambulance Service in 1952, and it oversaw the services also in Chesterfield and Williamsburg.

All three ambulance services were staffed by directors and volunteers in each town. However, as time went on, it became increasingly difficult to find volunteers who would serve during business hours. Because the three services could not afford to pay full-time staff on their own, their directors thought the towns could join together to form a new ambulance company.

Forgea said he can clearly remember Dresser giving the thumbs up when he was asked about the proposal at an informational meeting with representatives from all three towns. “That was it. That was all anybody needed to hear. That is how much they trusted him,” Forgea said.

Highland Ambulance was created in 2004.

Kim Dresser said his father remained active with Highland Ambulance until he was 80. After that, he remained on the board of directors until his death.

Retired Williamsburg Fire Chief Don Lawton said he knew Dresser for many years, and as an emergency medical technician he frequently rode with patients to the hospital with Dresser at the wheel of the ambulance.

“I remember a few trips to the hospital that were, well, let’s say very fast,” Lawton said. “He got them there as quickly and as safely as he could. That was who he was. He was a good man whose number one priority was saving people.”

Dresser had a reputation in the Hilltowns as the quintessential go-to-guy. Forgea said that when important decisions had to be made in the community, many would look to Dresser for guidance and advice.

“To me he was a symbol of how things should be,” Forgea said. “He was always there through the good, the bad, and the ugly. If there was a problem, we could always turn to Francis.”

Dresser had been suffering for some time with complications from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, his son said.

“In the old days of firefighting, you caught a lot of smoke because we had no SCBAs” (Self Contained Breathing Apparatus), Kim Dresser said.

“He was also a heavy smoker but he decided to quit about 25 years ago so he could set an example for the EMTs,” his son added. “My dad was dad to a number of people. He was a mentor and he always provided guidance without judging anybody.”

However, he was not a man who sought recognition for his work and was never one to “blow his own horn,” family and colleagues said.

“He didn’t want a wake or a funeral, but he touched so many lives over the years, we thought we needed to do something,” his son said.

There will be a private burial on Sunday in the Goshen Cemetery, followed by a celebration of his life at 2 p.m. in the Goshen Town Hall.

“I don’t think anyone could ever fill his boots and I don’t think that they should try,” Forgea said. “What they should do is see him as a lighthouse, and use the guiding light of his legacy to do good and meaningful work.”


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