BRATTLEBORO -- To his friends in the fire service, John Wheelden Sr. was a gritty, old-school "smoke eater."
Lisa Lawrence uses another word -- "Hero."
Wheelden died Dec. 5. On the same date 37 years earlier, the Brattleboro firefighter had pulled Lawrence and her sister from a burning home on Green Street.
That was the start of a lifelong friendship that included Lawrence inviting Wheelden to her wedding in 1990.
"He came in, and I gave him a big hug," Lawrence said. "I told him, ‘I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for you.'"
She and many others whose lives were touched by Wheelden took time in recent days to pay tribute to a man who logged more than six decades with the Brattleboro Fire Department.
He joined the department in 1946 and held ranks including lieutenant, fire inspector, captain and assistant fire chief. He retired from the department's career staff in 1987 but was a member of the call force until 2009.
Wheelden remained a frequent visitor to the department's Elliot Street headquarters.
"He continued to come around right up until a week before he died," Brattleboro Fire Chief Michael Bucossi said.
Bucossi joined the department's career staff in 1977. Wheelden, who already had three decades of experience at that point, went about his job with a strong work ethic and "just plain grit," Bucossi recalled.
"He was a nose-to-the-grindstone type of guy," he said. "He wasn't afraid of anything.
David Emery, a retired Brattleboro chief, worked with Wheelden -- and learned from him -- starting in 1970.
Emery remembers a tough professional who spoke his mind and, as sometimes was the case among old-timers, shunned the safety devices known as air packs.
Wheelden also loved to crack jokes, come up with nicknames and share a few drinks. And he was an unquestioned leader.
"John led the way," Emery said. "He was always at the front of the pack."
That was the case on Dec. 5, 1975. Emery was driving a fire truck that night to Green Street, where firefighters found a home spewing heavy smoke.
There were screams from onlookers: Two young girls were trapped inside. Wheelden left the truck and, with "no hesitation," plunged into the apartment, Emery recalled.
"He's on the ground, and you could hear him coughing and hacking in there," Emery said.
Kathy Clark, who was nine months pregnant, had escaped the apartment with her husband and two of their children. The smoke was too thick for re-entry.
Wheelden "didn't even stop to put on a mask. He just went in," Clark recalled.
After a brief search, he found the girls -- ages 6 and 2 -- hiding in a bedroom. Wheelden handed them both out a window before collapsing from smoke inhalation.
All involved turned out fine. And the Clark family never let Wheelden forget their gratitude.
"He's our hero and always has been," Clark said. "But it was all in a day's job for him. He didn't feel that he did anything special."
While Wheelden didn't want any fanfare, that didn't mean he wasn't passionate about fire fighting. His son, John Wheelden Jr., recalls that "the fire service was his love."
"He told my mother, ‘If that tone goes off, I'm going,'" Wheelden's son said.
So that meant Wheelden was a firefighter at all times and wherever he happened to be.
In addition to his job in Brattleboro, Wheelden was a longtime member of the volunteer fire department in his hometown of Vernon, where he was known for sitting in a chair in front of the fire station while puffing on a cigar.
After Wheelden's death, Vernon firefighters offered tribute by lighting up cigars outside the fire house.
Wheelden also maintained a camp in Wilmington. In November 1980, he introduced himself to that town's firefighters in a dramatic way.
"There was a mobile-home fire. (Wheelden) was there, and I just happened to be driving the first attack truck," said Tom Redin, a Wilmington firefighter at the time. "He was pulling the line off the truck and yelling to charge the line. And we had no idea who this guy was."
Not long after, Wheelden joined the Wilmington department. Redin said Wheelden quickly formed lasting friendships there by sharing his camp while also sharing fire department duties.
"He was very experienced. He would never expect anything of you that he wouldn't do himself," Redin said. "If you looked up the definition of ‘firefighter' in the dictionary, you'd see a picture of John Wheelden."
Wheelden even joined the fire department near his winter home in Florida, helping out with odd jobs there.
That dedication was passed to his son, who has spent two decades with Vernon's fire department and holds the rank of lieutenant.
"I fell in love with it as soon as he started bringing me to the fire house in Brattleboro," John Wheelden Jr. said. "I grew up around the fire house."
The elder Wheelden had many other titles including Army veteran, Purple Heart recipient, National Guardsman, police officer and constable. He also was a loving husband, father and grandfather, an avid outdoorsman and a lifetime member of several fraternal organizations.
But he will be most-often remembered as a fire-fighting institution in Brattleboro.
"I truly will miss him," Emery said. "I think he was an icon in the fire service."
Mike Faher can be reached at email@example.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.