By LEE J. KAHRS
BRANDON — Brandon has lost a fire chief whose death was a surprise to everyone.
Former Brandon Fire Chief Roman Wdowiak died unexpectedly on Friday at the age of 68.
A memorial service was held at the Brandon Fire Station on Monday in a sad and fitting homage to Wdowiak, a service marked by warm weather and social distancing in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. It was quite literally a large circle of fellow firefighters, a few friends and relatives, Wdowiak’s widow Lynn, and officiate Gary Stanley, owner of Miller and Ketcham Funeral Home.
Stanley began by saying that, when he was young, he thought he knew everything, but as he grew up he realized he “didn’t know anything.”
“The earth is a schoolroom for the soul’s development,” he said. “Our bodies are like that beautiful blue Tiffany’s box, that holds a gift. Once the gift is removed, the box is discarded. The treasure, the treasure remains.”
Stanley said regardless of religion or creed, background or leaning, everyone believes in something.
“Down deep, we all believe in something, whatever that something is, because that something is what makes us tick,” he said. “That something is what gets us up in the morning and makes us go on, regardless of the situation. That something that helps us improvise and overcome whatever misfortunes fall on us.”
Wdowiak’s widow Lynn then went to the podium to address those gathered. She said Memorial Day looms large in the history of the their marriage. She met her husband at a Memorial Day celebration at the Spring Valley Hook and Ladder fire station in Rockland County, N.Y. where Wdowiak was a captain and decorated firefighter, including several citations for valor (see obituary, page 5). It was also the same fire station where Lynn became a lieutenant and a firefighter. The couple was married in Spring Valley in 2002.
In 2005, the Wdowiak’s came to Vermont on Memorial Day weekend to look at property, but resolute in the belief that they would not buy anything that weekend.
“We specifically did not bring a check book because we were not going to buy that day,” she said. “We saw our property down here (on Rydon Acres) and it had just gone on the market that day. I Fed Exed a check the minute we could.”
She said her husband wanted a place where he could have a garden and tractor. She recalled the days they drove the tractor from the storage facility on Route 7 near Cattails all the way to their property, before they had a garage.
“And here in Vermont, people waved to us on that tractor with their whole hand,” she said.
Wdowiak joined the Brandon Fire Department as soon as he could after moving to Brandon, and became chief in 2012, serving until late last year. Lynn said she asked Brandon Fire Lt. Nate Cram to jot down his thoughts on Wdowiak’s time as chief of the department. What followed was a combination of Wdowiak’s and Cram’s thoughts:
“Roman took a ship, plugged the holes, grabbed the helm, and did everything possible to right the ship in a few key ways,” she read.
She and Cram noted that Wdowiak made a point of keeping the command staff informed, delegating jobs and keeping the department involved in the decision-making process.”
Wdowiak was a retired middle school social studies and math teacher who spent 37 years teaching in the Greenpoint neighborhood of Brooklyn, N. Y., and the teacher in him was well suited to being fire chief.
“He brought the membership back together by allowing them to have a say in key items and on how things should be done. He thought that every one of his officers should know everything that he was doing, or should know how to do things so that if the unforeseen happened, they could move up and perform.”
Wdowiak also instituted fitness training, physicals, grant writing for equipment, and was able to procure two new fire trucks, Engine 1 and Tanker 1, the first two pieces of apparatus for the department since the mid 1980s. Membership also grew.
Wdowiak said the public needs to remember that firefighters are there for the good of the communities they serve, and not just for themselves.
“If you’re on the department for the tee shirt or the license plate, you shouldn’t be there,” she said. “You should be there to be a firefighter and to help your community.”
She said her husband was there, like so many, for the right reasons.
“He was a leader who looked for the good in each individual and tried to bring that out in them” she said. “You may not have always seen eye to eye with him, but you knew where he stood. And he did everything in his power to show you a situation through his eyes, so you would understand how he saw things.”
To the department, she concluded, “Firefighting is a team sport, and a family sport, and I know you will continue that tradition.”
She took a deep breath and paused.
“I don’t know how I’m going to get through this period, but I’ll figure it out,” she said.
Stanley then took the podium for his final remarks. He talked about the importance of heartbreak.
“Heartbreak is something we all, at one time or another, experience,” Stanley said. “I like to think that Roman would say over the years, his heart has been broken, many times… But you know, broken hearts are what give us strength, and understanding, and compassion.”
He then ended on the note with which he began Wdowiak’s service.
“Please remember that when someone we love becomes a memory, that memory becomes a treasure,” Stanley said. “For those who touch our lives, they truly stay in our hearts forever. None of us can prepare for death, but I believe that we can live life in such a way that, every night, we have something to be grateful for, and every morning, something for which to get up.”
The Fireman’s Bell Ceremony was then performed by Tom Kilpeck, president of the Dunmore Hose Company, and acting chief Ron Euber, and Wdowiak’s firefighting helmet was presented to his widow Lynn.