Before Thomas A. Mattingly Sr. was an official member of the Leonardtown Volunteer Fire Department in 1963, he was responding to calls.
But he became a formal member that year and will be celebrating 50 years with the department at its installation of officers this weekend.
“I started when I was 16,” Mattingly, now 67, said this week. His father already was a member when he joined. His wife, Dennie, is in the auxiliary. His son, Thomas A. Mattingly Jr., is also a member of the fire department and like his father also has been chief.
Joining the fire department “was the thing for young boys around town to get into,” Mattingly Sr. said, and there wasn’t much else to do besides play baseball. He and a group of friends joined up at the same time. “Most of them are passed away,” he said.
Leonardtown Volunteer Fire Department is the oldest in St. Mary’s County, operating continuously since 1928, though it had even earlier beginnings. All the charter members are now gone, but “we have a fair amount” of other members with 50 years, he said.
“I didn’t even think about 50 years when I got into it,” Mattingly said.
When he joined in 1963, the firehouse was still located on Fenwick Street with three bays. Construction on the current building started two years later.
There was no 911 emergency telephone service yet and the emergency operations center was only nine years old at the time, located in the second floor of the county office building next to the circuit courthouse. There was one operator at night, joined by one deputy and one state trooper on call. With calls few and far between, most of the time they played cards, Mattingly said.
A massive brush fire in Compton in April 1963 “was the first fire I went on,” he said. Crews were down at the end of Wathen Road and they thought they lost two firefighters in the chaos of the smoke and fire. “We heard this roaring start and the fire crowned in those trees. It was like a freight train. That was the only time I’ve ever seen a woods fire crown.”
Some 30 fire companies, 300 volunteers and 100 sailors from Patuxent River Naval Air Station fought the fire, The (Baltimore) Sun reported. Twenty families in Compton were evacuated from the blaze, which destroyed six buildings. The fire was stopped at Breton Bay before it could reach the county seat in Leonardtown.
Mattingly also recalled responding to a fire after much of the county was flooded. On July 22, 1969 a train of thunderstorms dropped 12.44 inches of rain — the most rainfall seen in less than 24 hours in St. Mary’s County.
McIntosh Run overflowed its banks by 6 feet, flooding the Leonardtown Laundry, causing a fire. “The first truck got washed out to the edge of the road” on Route 5, which was being widened that year, Mattingly said. To get the second fire truck through, “we walked a ways in front of that to make sure the road was still there. It was waist deep” and no one had safety lines.
A watchman in the State Highway Administration garage got stranded on the other side of McIntosh Run, where a winery is today, and had to be rescued by a front-end loader, Mattingly said.
“That fire was the most interesting, just to get to it. I’m not sure why somebody didn’t get washed away,” he said.
That same year, Mattingly was chairman of the department’s fire prevention committee, working to educate people about the dangers of fire. He presented an artwork patch to the department to serve as its official fire prevention patch. It featured a drawing of Smokey Bear, Sparky the Fire Dog and Sweepy the Squirrel and it became the official fire prevention patch for the Maryland State Firemen’s Association.
“I don’t know how the idea came into my head, but it did,” Mattingly said, with the help of Kennedy Abell, who drew the eagle above the characters. Abell joined the Leonardtown fire department in 1944.
In 1990, Mattingly was elected president of the Maryland State Firemen’s Association. He logged 30,000 miles in traveling to meetings across the state, Abell said. Mattingly already had been a lifetime member, past president and past chief of the Leonardtown Volunteer Fire Department when he was inducted into the Maryland State Firemen’s Association Hall of Fame in 1991.
Abell said Mattingly was “always a worker,” in the Leonardtown fire department, doing a little bit of everything in support. “He’s been very much involved in the dedication of the department and its activities,” Abell said, including bolstering the Christmas tree lighting program and visits with Santa at the firehouse.
In recent years, Abell said, Mattingly is “in the top running for attendance in fire calls” as a driver.
Smoke detectors have had the greatest impact on saving lives locally from fires, Mattingly said. Fewer people burn wood to heat their homes today, which would often cause house fires, starting in the chimney. And there have been improvements in construction standards and fire sprinkler systems are required in St. Mary’s in attached homes and buildings of a certain size.
“We’re in our infancy here” in requiring fire sprinkler systems said Mattingly, who served 12 years as a St. Mary’s County commissioner, beginning in 1998.
“We’ve been pretty lucky,” he said, as the Leonardtown area hasn’t suffered from major fires recently. “In the last five to six years, we’ve only had a handful of house fires with significant damage,” he said.