Column: If anyone was ‘ever ready,’ it was Smokey

Harold 'Smokey' Schaefer (left) with fire chief Bobby Taylor (center) as he was presented with the 1979 Fireman of the Year award. (Riverhead Fire Department courtesy photo)
Harold ‘Smokey’ Schaefer (left) with fire chief Bobby Taylor (center) as he was presented with the 1979 Fireman of the Year award. (Riverhead Fire Department courtesy photo)

You know you’re a pretty legendary fireman when you’ve earned the nickname Smokey.

Ex-captain Harold Schaefer managed to pull it off. Exactly how or when the name Smokey stuck remains subject to speculation: Was it due to the cigar so often hanging out of his mouth, or the fact that he scoffed at the thought of using air packs until they were required?

Or could it have been that he served close to three-quarters of a century — over 73 years — in the Riverhead Fire Department?

Some questions are better left unanswered, I guess.

One thing is sure from what I heard this week: Smokey’s nickname stuck long before he racked up years in the RFD. One of his eight grandchildren told me he had had the name as long as she could remember, though she didn’t want to put a year on that.

But the nickname itself was secondary to the man, who died last week at the age of 94.

Smokey — a World War II veteran who served as captain of RFD’s Ever-Ready Co. No. 3 from 1949 to 1950 — came from a family that served, and continues to serve, in the local fire department with pride. His mother volunteered in the ladies’ auxiliary, and that family tradition continues to this day with one of his granddaughters. His daughter Marie currently serves as auxiliary president and his brother Eugene was chief of the RFD back in the 1960s.

Family ties to local volunteer fire departments are among the many threads that make up the fabric of community, and Smokey helped weave together more than his fair share.

“It’s a tradition,” first assistant chief Kevin Brooks said to me this week, referring to what drew him into the RFD. “The guys that get in to be in it usually have family roots here. And once they get in, they stay in, unless they get out of town.”

Mr. Brooks himself comes from another line of Riverhead firefighters — his father and sons all serve today.

In fact, one of Smokey’s relatives — was it his great-great grandson?— was given his helmet Tuesday night at a service at McLaughlin-Heppner Funeral Home in Polish Town, just a block away from where Smokey grew up on Sweezy Avenue. But I couldn’t tell for sure who was given the helmet, the room was so packed with firefighters. Come to think of it, it was a good thing there were no major fires Tuesday night, so many men in uniform were there.

Of course, Smokey had other interests when not in the firehouse. The father of three coached a championship softball team in Riverhead men’s league back in the 1960s, enjoyed fishing and swimming and loved playing the trumpet. He played taps for the department well into his 80s.

But for a guy nicknamed Smokey, it’s probably inevitable that he’ll be best remembered for fighting fires. It seems like something he wouldn’t have minded anyway.

“From what I understand, he was one of the best interior firefighters we had,” Mr. Brooks said.

It’s not actually knocking the fires down, though, or all the time spent running drills on the Ironman racing teams, that cause me to have such warm feelings for someone I actually never met.

In the end, the sheer number of years spent in the department, the number of hours spent helping keep the community safe and strong — not to mention the four years in the U.S. Army — speak for themselves.

“It is nobler to serve than to be served,” the department chaplain said at Smokey’s service on Tuesday night. “May he who served so many inspire us to serve better.”

Joseph Pinciaro is the managing editor at the Riverhead News-Review. He can be reached at 631-354-8024.