Mass. fire chief retires, reflects on 41-year career
Methuen Deputy Fire Chief Chuck Ripley worked his last shift with the department, marking the end of a 41-year career
By Kiera Blessing
METHUEN, Mass. — As a child, Chuck Ripley can remember riding his bike through town to the site of a brush fire, then following the firefighters' hose lines into the woods to deliver a packed lunch to his father.
As a young man, he still recalls the feeling of water filling one of those hoses the first time he held one at the site of an active blaze in 1976, his lieutenant commanding the head, dousing the flames before they could become an inferno.
Friday, Methuen Deputy Fire Chief Ripley worked his last shift with the department, marking the end of a 41-year career.
"The one thing you miss as a chief officer is grabbing the hose line and going in to actually put the fire out," Ripley said. "Being given the privilege of leading the group of men in a dangerous fight is really a tremendous amount of responsibility that weighs on you heavily; but it's always a privilege and honor, and it's one I'll always be grateful for."
The deputy chief isn't the only Charles Ripley to have held that title -- his father, Charlie, had a similarly impressive run with the department for about 36 years, after he served five in the military.
"My father was very pleased when I achieved the same rank as he did in my career," Ripley said. The elder Ripley died in 2010 at the age of 92.
Firefighting is often a family affair, but following in his father's footsteps wasn't always Ripley's plan. He went to college to pursue other interests, but took the civil service exam anyway, and eagerly joined the ranks of the department in March of 1976 after years of watching his father's career and "how much it meant to him."
By 1982, Ripley had been promoted to lieutenant, and worked directly under his father for the next three years until his retirement. In 1999, Ripley was appointed deputy chief.
"(Ripley) was (an) extremely knowledgeable and consummate professional," said current Deputy Chief Dan Donahue. "He lived for the Fire Department. It truly was a huge part of his life."
Reflecting on his time with the department, Ripley most seemed to recall the "joking and camaraderie" of the men and women he worked with and the guiding nature of the lieutenants and chiefs he learned from, in the days before fire academy training existed.
"Just the experience of the older guys is a valuable thing and they really help the new guys," he said. "That's something I always respected -- the people that came before me."
Donahue, who spent most of his career working under Ripley, said that it wasn't long before he had returned the favor.
"Just watching him as a leader was truly -- it was something to see," Donahue said. "On the fire ground, he always stayed calm and cool and never got rattled, and that kept everybody else calm."
The only time he ever saw Ripley "nervous," Donahue said, was 15 years ago, when a tanker truck full of gasoline caught flame at a gas station on Lowell Street. A less experienced firefighter might have tried to douse those flames, allowing the gas to flow downhill with the water -- but Ripley let the truck burn, and directed his firefighters to protect the exposed buildings instead.
"He knew enough to avoid that and just let it burn out," Donahue said. "Thank God he was on that call."
Over the last 41 years, Ripley fielded calls as a dispatcher, fought fires, rushed to accidents as an EMT, and commanded fire scenes as a deputy chief. The most satisfying part of the job, he said, was stopping flames in their tracks in order to preserve someone's home.
"I always say to the guys, 'the big fires that make the evening news...are so spectacular, but the place is generally a total loss.' So what's always been satisfying to me is the stuff that doesn't make it to the news," he said.
And, certainly, Ripley said he will dearly miss his fellow men and women on the force.
"The bonds you build with your fellow firefighters are very strong -- I mean, you practically live together for long periods of time," he said. "And of course, going out and facing the hazards of the job together, it builds tremendous bonds."
On Monday, enjoying his first official day of retirement, Ripley enjoyed the warm summer's day on his back deck. He said he wasn't sure what was next, but that he planned to fill his days with quality time with his granddaughters, aged 6 and 8, who live next door, and keeping up with his passion project, a website where he compiles facts and photos pertaining to the life of the infamous American traitor, Benedict Arnold.
At the Fire Department, Ripley left a stellar reputation.
"He just kind of sits back and takes everything in and just laughs. He's a very, very respected guy," Donahue said. "He's a man of few words, but he's always watching."
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