Tom Steele’s association with Westville fire department began with begging drives in fire trucks. More recently, he has moved up to marshalling the July 1st parade and hosting a Maritime firefighters’ convention.
Steele, who grew up a couple of doors from the old fire station on Court Street, headed straight for the station whenever he heard a fire whistle.
“When I was just a kid I’d drop whatever I was doing or jump out of bed and run for the station. I was usually the first one there and the big doors were never locked in those days so I’d open them up and hop in a truck. A lot of the guys let me come to the fire but it was understood I was not to get out of the truck,” he said.
The fire station and opportunities to make money had more appeal for Steele than the hockey rink or the baseball diamond.
“I was 13 when I started working at the Sobeys store in Westville. Before too long I was working in four different stores, up to 40 hours a week. I was doing everything from janitorial to receiving to cash and carry-out. A student could never get those hours today but if you got a foot in the door and you were willing to work, there was plenty of work.”
After high school Steele went to Sydney to study business at the Eastern Institute of Technology where he completed the first year of a two-year program.
“I was working at Sobeys on Prince Street at the same time, getting called in quite a bit. Then I was courted by Sobeys for a fulltime job and I figured I was better off making money than going into debt going to school. My mother told me there was no future in the job but I disappointed her and took it anyway.”
He returned to the Westville store, eventually moved into advertising with Sobeys and later became the general manager of Eastern Sign Print, a position he held for 32 years.
“I wore a leisure suit and a turtleneck to that interview. When Frank Hickey told me I had the job he also told me not to ever turn up in those clothes again.”
Steele was 21 when he joined the Westville fire department.
“My first big fire was the Westville Legion. My job was running hose and hooking up to hydrants. Not many firefighters got any sleep that night. The building was gutted and they had to rebuild on Spring Garden Road.’’
When he was young and single, Steele took advantage of every opportunity for firefighter training.
“I worked my way up from running hose to operating pumps. Eventually I was driving a truck instead of riding in one. Over the years I got involved in training other firefighters. I was in favour of forming the Pictou County Firefighters Association and I’m still the secretary.”
The county association will be hosting firefighters from across the Maritimes next weekend at the Pictou County Wellness Centre.
“We’ve got 23 departments in the county so we’re well suited to hosting an event like this. We’ve got some first-class speakers coming and we’ve got a great trade show organized.”
Steele said hosting the event in the Wellness Centre is ideal.
“The facilities are wonderful and the staff has been terrific to work with. We’re fortunate to have Summer Street Industries to do our catering.”
Convention-goers will be treated to a river cruise as well as a lobster dinner and show at the deCoste Centre.
“We’ve got the facilities and the firefighters to put together a top-notch convention. We want people to leave here with a very good impression of Pictou County.”
In a town the size of Westville the fire department is involved in more than firefighting and fire prevention. In the early 1980s the Westville department took over the running of the town’s July 1st celebrations.
“We look after everything from the parade to the pageant and we’ve got four guys trained as fireworks technicians. It is a big event for the town and we’re known for putting on a good show.”
The make-up of the parade has changed over the years but people still look forward to a parade.
“It gets harder to get bands so we won’t have as many as years ago but we’ll have good bands. When Jack MacIsaac was the MLA for Pictou Centre he helped us team up with the Nova Scotia Tattoo and that brought us some really talented bands we could not have gotten otherwise. This was before the tattoo began holding a matinee performance.”
One of Steele’s best band memories is of the first German pipe band to take part in Westville’s celebrations. Steele asked his father, a war veteran and legion member, if the legion would be willing to provide a meal for the band or whether some veterans might still harbour ill feelings.
“When I told him the name of the regiment he said they were good soldiers, only doing the job they had to do. When they came down the street Dad stepped out and saluted them. Later the Germans planted a tree at our war memorial so there was quite a bit of emotion that day.”
When the July 1st festivities and the firefighters’ convention are over, Steele will move into high gear as chairperson for Play the Pros, a fundraiser for minor hockey programs.