USA — A career that started when he gave a co-worker a ride ended last month for Harry Thayer, who officially retired after 45 years with the Exeter Fire Department.
In 1963, Thayer was working with Connie Manix, a captain with the Fire Department, at the Exeter News-Letter, which was then owned by the Thayer family. Manix didn’t have a driver’s license, and every time a fire call came in, he called out and asked someone to drive him to the fire.
After two years of driving Manix, dropping him off, and returning to the newspaper office, Thayer had a revelation.
“Finally, I just said, this is crazy; I’m carting this guy to the fire, I might as well join the Fire Department and do something,” Thayer said, adding that, at the time, he had been considering joining several other community organizations. “I thought I would get much more satisfaction and it would be much rewarding to be a firefighter, and I have not been disappointed.”
Thayer, 73, most recently served as the department’s deputy chief in charge of the call firefighters.
Throughout his 45 years with the department, where he served in a volunteer or part-time capacity, he was more often than not at any given fire call in town, said retired Exeter Fire Chief John Carbonneau.
“He was one of the backbones; there’s no question about that,” Carbonneau said. “You could always count on him to respond. If he wasn’t 100 percent in attendance, he wasn’t in town.”
Running off to help at fires, floods and during storms, Thayer recognized that he often had to leave his wife, Janice, and four children at home.
“In this job, there are certainly a lot of sacrifices as far as my family’s concerned,” Thayer said. “You didn’t join to make money; you joined to help people, and that was reward enough back then.”
The profession has changed dramatically from the time Thayer started, from the training required to gear worn by firefighters.
When Thayer started, training consisted of a once-a-year trip to a place in Fitzwilliam. He remembers fighting the 500-acre brush fire that started by Shaw’s Hill and went up Drinkwater Road wearing a 50-pound rubber coat.
“We bought our own stuff back then,” he said, adding he put his foot down at the town-issued aluminum helmet and managed to get a leather helmet instead.
Firefighters didn’t have air packs to wear when they went into burning buildings, but used gas masks from World War I.
“There couldn’t have been more than a half-dozen in the whole department,” he said of the masks.
The first two air packs were bought by the Fire Department’s Ladies Auxiliary, which held fund-raisers in order to purchase the packs. When then Fire Chief Vinnie Toland hesitated to accept two more air packs from the auxiliary the following year, Thayer arranged to have a photographer from the Exeter News-Letter there during the presentation, knowing that Toland would not refuse the packs in front of the press.
It was not the only time that his role as firefighter and newspaperman crossed, but Thayer said anytime the paper publicized something to do with the department, he felt it was for the good of the town. This was the case when the department acquired a new Maxim fire truck that arrived without the hoses and gear necessary for it to be used. The truck sat idle for two months and Thayer decided to put a photo of the truck, with an explanation of why it was not being used, in the newspaper. Then Selectman Sherm Chester saw the photo and donated his $2,000 yearly selectman’s pay to outfit the truck.
Thayer worked with seven different fire chiefs during his tenure, including current Chief Brian Comeau.
“Harry was a great sounding board for me when I became chief in 2000,” Comeau said. “He had a lot of good connections with the community, a lot of experience with the department. His years of experience kept him very much focused on the job at hand; he knew the Fire Department’s mission and really understood what had to be done.”
As deputy chief, Thayer was in charge of the training for the call firefighters, and Carbonneau pointed out that the level and type of training was greatly expanded under Thayer.
Thayer, and those call firefighters, were assigned to Engine 1 during fires, which is considered a supply wagon of sorts for firefighters.
“I’ve always been driving a supply truck,” Thayer said. “I think I’ve laid more hose in this town than any other firefighter ever did or ever will.”
As for the best part of his over four decades of service, Thayer said it was the ability to help the community.
“I think the satisfaction that you were helping people and the camaraderie that was involved with it, because everybody feels the same way,” he said. “You make a lot of sacrifices; your family suffers from your not being there, but I think they’re proud of what I did.”