Carl Simmons prided himself on being the first firefighter to roll.
It helped that he and his cousin Gordon, and later his brother Roy, all lived within hosing distance of the fire station in Clinton.
“They could get their engine on the road faster than any paid department,” said Don Smith, former chief of Island County Fire District 3. “They could have an engine on the road before I could get in my car.”
“We kind of challenged each other to see who could get there first,” Roy Simmons said Monday. “It wasn’t a big prestige thing. It was all about helping out your neighbors. Carl taught me the ropes.”
“We worked so good together,” Gordon Simmons said. “If one wasn’t driving the truck, the other one was. We’re all going to miss him.”
Carl Simmons, the first and only District 3 volunteer firefighter to serve 50 years, died at home this past week of lingering heart disease. He was 76.
“They gave him five years — 10 years ago,” Smith said. “He hung in there.”
During his time with the department, from 1954 to 2004, Simmons worked his way up from firefighter to battalion chief and head of the Clinton station, returning to “yellow hat” duty as a regular volunteer firefighter in his last few years of service to give younger members of the department a chance to advance.
“Carl was one of the rocks of the department,” said Smith, who was chief from 1996 to 2004, and is now retired and living in Carnation. “He was always a guy I could count on to give me good advice.”
Smith said he came aboard at a time of legal turmoil surrounding the department, and that Simmons helped him navigate the waves.
“He was a very stable force,” Smith said. “He was a friend, and I respected him as a mentor.”
Simmons was the third generation of the Simmons family in Clinton. His grandfather homesteaded in the 1800s. His father Martin was one of 10 children; Carl was one of eight.
Carl and Roy started a construction business in their 20s, but went their own professional ways in 1976, although they continued to work together on building projects. Roy carried on with carpentry; Carl founded Simmons Glass in Clinton, and also did plumbing.
Carl and Gordon joined the fire department about the same time in the ’50s. Roy joined in 1969, and he and Carl were among the first to recognize the importance of emergency medical training. Together they started the department’s first rescue service in the 1970s.
Paula Schuler, the district’s administrative assistant since 1992, said one of her first tasks was to deliver something to Simmons at the glass-company office.
“I asked if he were Mr. Simmons. He said, ‘No, I’m not. I’m Carl,’” Schuler said. “He commanded an immense amount of respect, but was very casual, very loving. He was just a dear.”
Simmons’ wife of 56 years, Ethel, said her husband was committed and dedicated to the district.
“He loved his work with the fire department and the people he worked with,” she said.
Simmons’ son Kenon, one of five children, followed his father into the glass business out of high school — and eventually into the fire service.
Trained as a volunteer firefighter, he currently is a commissioner on the district’s three-member board.
“I grew up with dad’s pager going off,” Kenon Simmons said. “If there were a big fire, mom would pile us into the car and drive us to watch.”
He said he could talk for days about his father’s experiences in the department, and recalls sitting on the edge of his father’s bed recently, swapping stories.
“You think you’ve seen everything, then you get the next call,” he said.
Kenon Simmons said his father, a religious man active for years at the Christian and Missionary Alliance Church in Langley, where he was a charter member, tried every day to live according to the Golden Rule.
Smith echoes the sentiment.
“At his retirement, I said the only thing he’s done longer than being a firefighter was to teach Sunday school,” he said.
“If a problem needed solving, dad could figure out a way to solve it,” Kenon Simmons said. “His hobby was serving his neighbors. He didn’t talk about it, he just did it.”
“For the last 25 years, he was my best friend,” his son said. “That’s pretty uncommon.”
A memorial service for Simmons is planned for 1 p.m. Saturday, April 30 at the Christian and Missionary Alliance Church in Langley.
Simmons received numerous service awards during his years with the fire district, and each year since 2003 the department has presented the Carl Simmons Officers Choice Award to a select volunteer.
“We gave the first one to Carl,” Schuler said.