A hush fell over the crowd when Rick Smith's retirement was announced. "You could have heard a pin drop," Smith said.The text of a surprise commendation from the U.S. House of Representatives mistakenly indicated that Smith, chief of the Gilbertsville Fire and Rescue Company, was retiring after 32 years of service.
"Don't worry folks," said state Rep. Bob Mensch, who read the declaration. "Mr. Smith isn't going anywhere."
Nearly 100 guests at the company's first annual banquet, hosted April 28 by the Friendship Hook and Ladder Fire Company in Boyertown, roared with approval.
Smith said his crew was "shell-shocked" at the erroneous announcement. "It makes me feel very wanted," he said.
A scheduling conflict at Gilbertsville Fire Hall forced the fire company to hold the banquet else
Smith said his company always hosted a Christmas party, but members decided to throw a more formal event.
The two-hour affair featured Dr. Bill Jenaway, an expert on funding and operating volunteer fire departments.
Smith awarded the Fire Chief's Award to Charles Patt and William Frost.
Survivors Phil of Buckwalter accepted the Gilbertsville Fire and Rescue Firefighter of the Year Award in his honor.
Zach Santiago captured the Chief Engineer's Award and Rookie of the Year honor.
A special recognition award to the company's bingo members kicked off the festivities. Smith said the committee's weekly efforts, which paid for the event, "keep the company's doors open."
The chief also presented a business recognition award to A.D. Moyer and Hardware, Gilbertsville Auto Body, Turkey Hill, Berks-Mont Towing and Recovery, and Baird's Catering.
"They have all made great contributions," Smith said.
Two years ago, citing emotional exhaustion, Smith, then the deputy chief, left the department soon after its split from Gilbertsville Fire Company No. 1 in April of 2005.
But constant phone calls from Douglass (Mont.) Township residents and firefighters convinced him to return.
Riding in a fire truck and "helping people at their lowest points got into my blood," said Smith, who joined the department as a 16-year-old in 1975.
"I wanted to make sure everyone comes back from a call safe," he said.
Under Smith, who was named acting chief in summer 2005 and elected chief a year later, the department has increased its training.
At least half its firefighters have achieved the first of three state certifications, making Gilbertsville Fire and Rescue eligible for state and federal grant money.
Smith has no immediate plans to retire. He said he will continue to serve as long as his health and motivation allows.
"I'll do the job until my body says it's time to go," said Smith, who works as a field supervisor at Hutt's Glass in Gilbertsville. "It's rewarding to leave a location knowing you helped people cope."
Below is a list of individual awards given at the banquet:
Special Recognition Award
Fire and Rescue Bingo Members
Dot Agliano, Phil Agliano, Sr., Nellie Stanczak, Shannon Eppehimer, Betty Heckman, Joyce Delong, Brenda Smith, Milly Tennis, Allen Fritz, Pat Fizz, Linda Richards, Sandy Shull, Donna Reeves, Marion Bandura, Carol Jones, Chris Hollis, Louise Linsenbigler, Rosanne Fronczak, Ginny Bernhart, Nicky Frantz.
Business Recognition Award
A.D. Moyer Lumber and Hardware
Gilbertsville Auto Body
Berks-Mont Towing & Recovery
Honorary Life member award
Bernard Heinze, Esquire
Andrew Duncan, Albert Rettew, Kris Hammill, James Kokonos.
Chief Engineer's Award
Junior Firefighter Award
Rookie of the Year Award
Fire Chief's Award
Charles Patt, William Frost.
Phil Buckwalter Memorial Fire Police Service Award
Firefighter of the Year