FRIENDS AND FIREMEN … AFD’s Gary Esterline (left) and Delta Fire Department’s Jack Simon have a combined 85 years of firefighting experience. (PHOTO BY AMY WENDT, STAFF)
By: Amy Wendt
Volunteer firefighters are some of the bravest and most dedicated individuals in our communities. They put their lives on the line to save others, often without any expectation of recognition or reward.
This is why it is especially meaningful when a volunteer firefighter is recognized for their commitment and service, especially when they have served for half a century.
Gary Esterline is no exception. Recently, the Pettisville resident was awarded for his 50 years of service on the Archbold Fire Department (AFD).
Gary’s story starts in Alvordton where he was born to farmers Leland and Betty Esterline.
The family eventually sold their farm and moved to West Unity where Gary graduated from Hilltop High School in 1967.
Esterline’s career as a volunteer fireman began in 1973 when he witnessed a car accident while working in Burlington at the intersection of State Route 66 and US Route 20A.
Following the accident, Gary pitched in to help the firemen sweep debris from the road. It was on that day one of them suggested to Gary that he should join the department, and that’s when it all started.
Many things have changed over the last 50 years. Esterline recalls during his first couple of years in service, the firemen would ride on the back of the truck. For safety reasons, that practice was phased out in the late ’70s.
When Esterline started on the AFD, the turnout gear was much different than what it is today, consisting of simple long black raincoats and black rubber boots.
Gary remembers Fire Chief Bill DeGroff purchasing a batch of rain boots in one large size only so they would fit all of the firemen.
If the boots were too large, the guys would simply stuff socks in the toes to make them fit.
Gary married his wife of 46 years, Luana, and the couple made Archbold their home. Esterline noted that for many years, Luana, and the rest of the firemen’s wives made significant contributions to the department by taking meals, coffee, and water to the guys on large fire or accident scenes no matter the time of day or night.
Gary added that during the most recent Pettisville structure fire in December 2022, Luana got up at 3:00 am to make coffee and sandwiches for the whole crew.
During his time in Archbold in the ‘70s, Esterline worked as a mechanic for various small businesses including Storrer’s Marathon and Christy’s Chevrolet.
From there, Gary went on to briefly work for the State of Ohio where he managed a fleet of dump trucks during the year of the blizzard of 1978.
Feeling the pull to own his own auto mechanic business, Esterline purchased the Pettisville Garage when the opportunity came up in 1978.
Shortly thereafter, he and his wife purchased a home just down the road from the garage in Pettisville as it was simply more convenient to live closer to the shop.
Upon moving to Pettisville, Gary told the fire chief that he would be leaving AFD since he no longer lived in Archbold.
However, the fire chief convinced him to stay on and cover calls near Pettisville since AFD often responded to that area as well.
Gary vividly remembers the 1976 fatal train wreck that happened in Pettisville where two trains collided head-on.
It was said in the February 5, 1976 extra edition of the Republican newspaper, that the explosion was seen from up to 25 miles away.
Departments from Archbold, Wauseon, Ridgeville, and Stryker took over 20 pieces of equipment to the scene and the cleanup lasted for nearly three days.
IN THE BEGINNING … Esterline working on a structure fire during his second year on the Archbold Fire Department, circa 1974. (PHOTO PROVIDED)
Esterline also noted that before gates were installed, the railroad crossing next to the Pettisville Garage was called “The Bermuda Triangle for Trains” due to so many fatalities.
Shortly after Gary purchased the Pettisville Garage, there were three fatalities between 1978 and 1979.
Gary, found his professional expertise as an auto mechanic to be particularly valuable in his work with the AFD.
Back before fire departments had “Jaws of Life” he was once called to dismantle the steering column from a car to rescue someone who was trapped in a vehicle.
Also, because he owned the garage, he was able to find vehicles for the AFD to use for their Jaws training when that tool became available to the department in later years.
There was some time after purchasing the Pettisville Garage that he was unable to give as much time to the AFD as he would have liked, Gary admitted.
Keeping up with the responsibilities of his business, and spending time racing go-carts with his son, Tully, filled his schedule.
Since Gary has retired and sold the Pettisville Garage after 40 years of owning it, he is now trying to make up for that lost time.
Though he’s no longer EMT certified, he still goes out on all of the calls that he can so he can offer a helping hand to the other guys.
Gary always carries his gear and a couple of fire extinguishers in his truck, so he is prepared if there is a call in the Pettisville area.
When he’s not out on calls, he’s busy working on the new AFD training facility.
“Back in the day, we used to burn empty houses for training which is no longer allowed,” explained Esterline.
The AFD obtained five shipping containers and Gary, along with some of the other AFD crew, have been busy turning it into a mock-up home that the firemen can use for training instead.
Soon, Esterline will be working on another project for the department. AFD plans to recycle an out-of-service heavy rescue truck in its fleet to create a “rolling lounge” of sorts.
Once finished, it will be used as a place on the scene of a call where first responders can get a quick break from the elements and grab a bite to eat.
As Esterline reflected on his career with AFD with fellow fireman Jack Simon 35-year veteran of Delta Fire Department, the friends noted that they have seen many changes over the years.
Back when he began, Gary remembers there were around 100-200 calls a year. Since that time, calls have increased exponentially to over 1,200 calls in 2022.
The guys attribute the call increase over the years primarily to people being out and about much more now than they were even 30 years ago.
As a result, many area fire departments have had to hire full-time staff to accommodate the increasing calls over the years since a fully volunteer fire department simply does not have adequate manpower to cover so many incidents.
Esterline and Simon also noted that there have been significant improvements in firefighting gear and equipment over the years as well as many changes in State mandated training requirements.
Chief Dave Davis of the AFD shared his thoughts on Esterline’s accomplishment, “To get people that have that length of service is kind of a dying breed.”
“I think he’s 72 or 73, but to be able to still perform, which he does, at that level…it’s just an unbelievable thing for somebody to still have the desire to serve like that. It’s commendable.”
It’s fair to say that Chief Davis does not want to lose that expertise on his department either. “I know he’s talked about retirement and getting off the department but I’ve tried to do what I can to keep him on because you just can’t replace that knowledge,” Davis continued.
“He’s just what you would want in a firefighter. He always pitches in, he knows what he’s doing, and if he has a question, he’ll ask. He’s just a professional.”
Amy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org