BY TED SHOCKLEY, Eastern Shore Post —
On the afternoon of Saturday, July 1, 1978, Wachapreague Volunteer Fire Co. member Kerry Wallace saw the smoke from his home and headed for the fire station.
Soon afterward, Wallace and other volunteer firefighters were battling flames in the fourth floor of the venerable Wachapreague Hotel, one of the Eastern Shore’s landmarks.
“We knocked it down some, but it got too hot,” said Wallace, 77, who charged into the building with a fire hose and not even an oxygen mask or tank.
Wallace shrugged at the risk, which he never considered.
“We had turnout gear, but not like we have today,” said Wallace.
It is one of the Eastern Shore’s famous blazes — and it happened right in front of the fire station where Wallace has volunteered for more than 62 years.
He has held just about every office in the company and given countless hours to its success and the people it serves.
Last weekend, Wallace was honored at the fire company’s banquet for being its oldest and longest-serving active member.
His daughters, Missy Wallace-Wessells and Hope Wallace Jones, who are also longtime fire company members, said the company has never had a 60-year member.
The company wanted to present him with his 60-year honor several years ago, but the COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of several banquets.
His dependability and likability extend beyond the fire service. He also was a father figure to all of his daughters’ pals.
“All of my friends call him ‘Dad,’ to this day,” said Jones.
His family’s association with the company spans generations. Wallace’s mother, Jeannette, was president of its ladies auxiliary.
His late wife, Nancy, was a emergency medical technician. Company membership now even includes some of Wallace’s grandchildren.
Today, it is harder to recruit volunteer firefighters. Once upon a time, it was a constant.
“When I was coming along, the boys like myself, we joined the fire company,” he said. In 1961, at the earliest opportunity, he did.
There was a cadre of junior firefighters and the fire chief at the time, James Paul, taught them how to use all of the equipment.
He had a career driving an oil truck for several fuel companies on the Eastern Shore, and said he was fortunate they let him get away from his duties to respond to emergencies.
During one instance, he heard the fire siren over the roar of the lawn mower while cutting grass.
He responded to the call and later returned to find the mower still running — in his haste to help, he forgot to turn it off.
Many times, Wallace has been there for people during their time of need. It earned him honored recognition as a member of the Delmarva Firefighter’s Hall of Fame, among other awards.
But the Independence Day holiday weekend in 1978, when the 100-room Wachapreague Hotel caught fire and was irreparably burned, is one he will never forget.
“All the party boats were fishing,” he said. “They were out there on the water and saw the smoke.”