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For 50 years, a commitment to extreme dedication

He has spent the past 50 years fighting fires across Halifax County. 

On Thursday South Boston Fire Department members recognized James Young of South Boston for volunteering a half-century of service to the local fire department. 

South Boston Fire Department Assistant Fire Chief Dwight Spangler said Young was supposed to be recognized for his service at their annual awards ceremony in December, but because Young was “under the weather” he was unable to attend.

Spangler presented Young with a plaque and his 50 years of service pen recognizing his extreme dedication to serving his community. 

On behalf of the board of directors, firefighter Barry Anderson presented Young with a resolution honoring and commending him for his 50 years of service.  

Young began his journey as a firefighter in 1964 at the age of 24. It was somewhere around April 24, Young recalled. 

Shortly before that he had moved to Halifax from Roxboro, N.C., and needed a place to stay. After speaking with a friend about his situation, Young was taken to the firehouse.

“After I got into it I just got interested in it and stayed on in it,” said Young. 

 He found a place to stay in the old firehouse above the treasurer’s office where sleeping quarters were available with limited beds, similar to some firehouses today. 

The men who stayed in these quarters were known as housemen who would sweep and keep the place in top condition, especially on cleaning day, Sunday. 

“But, I didn’t do much sweeping because I was working at Plywood,” said Young. 

He drove a forklift for U.S. Plywood about 12 hours a day, seven days a week, making about $200 to $260 every two weeks. As a houseman for the firemen, he received about $15 a month. 

“You had to buy what you eat, and you furnished your clothes, but they furnished your dress uniform,” said Young. 

Shortly after joining, Young took a pump class to learn to operate the company’s pump truck. The fire department then offered him a full-time position, but he said he couldn’t take it because of his job running the forklift. 

Instead, he joined the 30 to 40 other volunteers offering their services, a number much greater than the number of volunteers today. 

Two years later in 1966, Young married his wife, Jolene. 

South Boston Fire Chief Steve Phillips pointed out when someone makes a commitment to a fire department like Young has done, it is definitely a sacrifice.

“A lot of their family time is taken away from them. Fire doesn’t take a vacation,” added Phillips. 

Young agreed and explained that once he became married, he no longer worked as a houseman. 

In 1967, he began working for the Town of South Boston as the equipment operator, but as Young put it, he was their “handy man.” 

“I did a little bit of everything,” said Young who stuck with the town for 33 and a half years. 

For the last 10 of those, he served as the town’s cemetery foreman. 

He continued fighting fires and recalls witnessing the biggest one yet, the fire at Roses in 1976. 

Many remember this fire as being the big blaze downtown where everyone around the county showed up to help remove everything from the Roses store, and most who weren’t there could see the blaze “20 to 30 miles away.”

“Everyone was scared the whole block was going to burn up,” said Phillips who had not joined the fire department at that time but was around to help. 

Young recalls it being two days after Christmas and “every fire department in the county was there.

“Either you were spraying water or moving stuff up to the corner,” said Young who was doing both, “all night and all day.” 

The fire was contained that day, and only the Roses building sustained damage. 

“I remember Catos, (that was next door,) had what you call a true firewall. That’s what saved the block from burning. It stopped it from spreading,” said Phillips. 

When Young wasn’t fighting fires with his fellow firemen, he remembers raising money for the department just as firemen do today. The men would stand outside stores selling raffle tickets to raffle off a shotgun, or they would sell stew, said Young.

In his 50 years of service, Young has served as secretary, second lieutenant of Company 2 and as sergeant-at-arms on the board of directors. 

As of Thursday, Young had not retired from working with the fire department but is an associate member rather than a volunteer. 

The fire chief explained the difference: an associate member is not required to attend as many events as an active member. 

Even though Young said he isn’t able to do as much as he used to, he said, “I’ll stay in it if they let me.” 

Spangler quickly added, “As long as you want to stay with us, we are happy to have you.”