Have you met ... Cton’s longest-serving firefighter retires

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By Kristin Sherrard

The word commitment means different things to different people. To some, it is fleeting; something to do until something better comes along. To others, it is like choosing an outfit for the day, depending on external factors to make its decision. And yet, to some, it has absolutely no meaning at all.

But to a few, commitment means everything. It requires a re-dedication every day and demands the best effort possible in every situation. Strother Stark falls into this category.

Officially retiring on Jan. 31, Stark protected the Carrollton community for 62 years as a firefighter, making him the longest-serving in history for the Carrollton Fire Department.

“I just enjoy it,” Stark said. “(My wife) Malora says when the alarm comes in, I jump out of bed! She says it’s the only time I move fast!”

Stark, 79, has served under 10 different fire chiefs, and he has held five different positions while on the department: assistant chief, captain, lieutenant, safety officer and firefighter. 

“He’s not afraid to get his hands dirty,” Fire Chief Randy Tharp said. “… Even this past year, I mean he’s 79 years old, but it still seems like he’ll outwork some of the younger ones. He’s that dedicated to the department.”

Stark was born on July 26, 1930 in Campbellsburg, Ky. About a year later, his family moved to Bedford. Upon graduating from Trimble County High School, he worked for Eppie Burgess on Carlisle Road in Carrollton.

After working there for a year and a half, Stark began working for the Kentucky Water Service and eventually moved from Bedford to Carrollton. It was then that a man named George Baker would become an integral part of his life.

Baker, who was the superintendent for Kentucky Water Service, would be the one to introduce Stark to two great loves in his life: his wife, Malora, and the fire department.

Malora was Baker’s secretary, and she and Stark married in 1952. They have one daughter, Karen Lynne, who recently retired as a special education teacher and lives in Lexington, Ky. with her two sons.

In addition to matchmaker, Baker was also a Carrollton firefighter under Chief Thomas “Tommie” Ball.

“George and (Tommie) were good friends, and Tommie wanted some firefighters, didn’t have many, so he got George and me,” Stark said.

Stark joined the department in the spring of 1948, the same year the University of Kentucky won its first NCAA national championship, U.S. President Harry S. Truman signed an executive order to end racial segregation in the U.S. armed forces and Marvin the Martian made his debut in a Bugs Bunny cartoon, according to StateMaster.com.

At the time, firefighters received virtually no training before finding themselves on the scene.

 “In the old days, we didn’t even test hose, never,” Stark said. “When we had a fire, (we) just (tried) to put it out.”

Today, only firefighters with certain training can drive the fire engine. However, that was not the case when Stark joined the department.

“We had a 1930 American LaFrance, and everybody drove it,” he said. 

Mandatory training didn’t begin until the 1960s. Until then, the firefighters enjoyed two main activities to bond and to pass the time — eating and playing cards.

Tharp, who began working for the Carrollton Fire Department in 1984, said when Baker was secretary, he liked to cook and made sure everyone had enough to eat.

“Every meeting night, George thought you had to have something to eat,” he said. “It didn’t matter what it was, he was going to fix something.”

Stark said even though the firefighters still share meals at the firehouse today, things were different “in the old days.”

“We ate rabbit and squirrel,” he said. “Somebody would go hunting and then cook them at the firehouse. That’s another thing that’s changed.”

Another firehouse tradition was the card games. Stark said about six to eight older Carrollton residents would come by every day at noon to play hearts and crazy eights with the engineers. They would play all afternoon and then again after supper, he said. However, Stark only played on the weekends after dinner, as he had to work during the week.

After the Kentucky Water Service, Stark worked for M&T Chemical for 10 years. Next, he worked for Farrell Construction, where he helped set all the manholes when the first sewers were being installed in town. Then, he worked for Dravo Construction and helped build the Markland Dam.

In 1972, Stark began working in preventative maintenance for Kentucky Utilities. He retired from KU in 1995 and began working part-time for the Carroll County Sheriff’s Office. He also serves on the Ghent Fire Protection District Board of Directors and works as an usher on race days at the Kentucky Motor Speedway.

Not only has the menu changed down at the firehouse, but also the number and type of fires the firefighters respond to. 

“We had a lot of big warehouse fires,” Stark said. “We used to have a lot of big fires, but they hardly ever have one anymore.”

Among the more notable fires are the Ison Brothers Furniture Factory in the 1960s, Carrollton ReDryer in the 1970s and the 4th Street tobacco warehouse.

“About all we had back then were big ones; we didn’t have small ones very often,” Stark said. “… I think that’s because they burned wood a lot more than they do now. … And they didn’t have real good houses like they have now.”

The role of community firefighter has also changed over the years. Today’s fire department offers fire safety programs for young children in school and for other members of the community that years ago were not made available.

“(The public sees) them now more than they used to,” Stark said. “… (We used) to not do near as much, way back. The only time you’d see them then is when the fire truck came out.”

However, many in the community in the 1950s and 60s did participate in and enjoy the fundraising events for the WHAS Crusade for Children, a charity that raises money for children with special needs in Kentucky and Indiana. These events included a circus on Second Street, a fall festival and a Fireman’s Ball. Today, firefighters collect most of the money through golf scrambles, roadblocks and door-to-door collections.

When asked why he is retiring now, Stark pointed out his difficulty with driving at night, but also joked about his wife’s determination to convince him to slow down.

“She’s been wanting me to for a long time,” he said, laughing. “She’s been after Randy for a long time.”

Those who worked with Stark will remember his hard work and commitment to fellow firefighters, the department and the community.

“He’s willing to do and help anyone,” Former Fire Chief David Wilhoite said. “… I think it’s remarkable that he’s put that many years in and dedicated himself to one organization.”

While Stark may be retiring, he’s not planning to stop working any time soon.

“The only way Strother is going to retire, fully retire, is if it becomes a health issue and he’s forced to retire,” Tharp said. “… He’s going to stay busy doing something, whether it’s usher at the race track, being a bailiff over at the court system or something else he’ll find that he wants to do.”