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Hilltown Fire Chief Ends Reign - Gazette - 06/29/2006


Hilltown chief ends 55-year reign

Goshen Fire Chief Francis Dresser, seen here in a photograph from 1990, is stepping down after more than half a century in the post. He helped found the town's fire department after returning from combat in the South Pacific during World War II.

Gazette File Photo

Used by permission.  Copyright GazetteNET.com


GOSHEN - When Fran Dresser was appointed chief of the Goshen Fire Department in 1951, Harry Truman was president and most Hilltown families didn't have televisions.

At 26, he was one of the youngest - if not the youngest - fire chiefs in the state.

On Friday, at the age of 81 and with 55 years of continuous service to the town, Dresser will step down as one of the oldest chiefs in the state.

'His dedication to the town for frankly more years than a lot of us have been alive is truly remarkable,' said Selectman Kevin Lacey. 'I don't think that any reward could repay him for his dedication.'

Dresser's son Kim, who lives in Chesterfield, will serve as acting chief until selectmen appoint a replacement.

To a one, his family members and firefighters agreed that Fran Dresser is a man who avoids the spotlight, preferring to get things done rather than worry about who's getting praise or credit. Being the subject of a newspaper article isn't high on his list of priorities.

But Dresser's contributions to Goshen and to emergency services in the Hilltowns are already the stuff of legend.

'He was brought up to serve the town,' said Kim Dresser. 'If you go back in the history books, you'll find the Dresser name pops up an awful lot.'

Dresser said his father's devotion to the Fire Department and ambulance service are not simply a matter of small-town loyalty. His father fought in the U.S. Army's 96th Infantry Division in the South Pacific during World War II. It was fierce combat, and not everyone made it out alive.

When Dresser returned to Goshen, 'he felt that he had to do something because he was one of the ones who came home,' said Dresser. 'A lot of the guys didn't.'

Formed department

So Dresser and a handful of other men formed the town's Fire Department in 1949. A few years later, they started up the Goshen ambulance service.

Until 911 service was instituted, emergency calls went to the Dresser family home. Fran's wife, Ruth, was the dispatcher. Every month, said Kim, the department hosted benefit dinners to raise money.

Along with the Goshen Congregational Church, the Fire Department was a focal point in the lives of the slightly more than 200 residents of the town.

'These were people who really cared about their town and they really cared about their neighbors,' said Kim Dresser. 'Up in the hills, when the calls come in, it's your neighbor or your friend or your relative. Those are tough calls and it can wear on you.'

Susan Labrie, who joined the Goshen Fire Department in 1989, said that Dresser was 'irreplaceable.'

'This is a man that dedicated his entire life to emergency services in Goshen,' she said. 'He has been the Goshen Fire Department. He has been the ambulance service.'

Kim Dresser said that helping to bring ambulance service to Goshen and the Hilltowns was his father's 'crowning glory.'

In the 1950s, it wasn't uncommon to wait an hour or more before an ambulance would arrive at the scene of a car accident or at the home of a stroke or heart-attack victim. 'The guys just said, 'We can do better than that,' ' said Dresser.

The town bought a second-hand ambulance for $300 in 1956 and started answering calls.

Two years ago, Dresser helped form the Highland Ambulance - a regional emergency service housed in Goshen providing emergency service to six Hilltowns - Ashfield, Chesterfield, Cummington, Goshen, Plainfield and Williamsburg. It's a service area that spans over 150 square miles to reach approximately 8,000 people.

Stephen Mollison, whose father was one of the founding members of the Fire Department, signed on as a volunteer in the early 1960s. His Uncle Fran is the only fire chief he's ever known.

'He's been a very strong chief over the years,' Mollison said of Dresser. 'It's been fantastic for the town, to say the least. He's provided us with a lot of leadership.'

'He's done a lot for me personally and a lot for the department,' agreed 19-year-old Dustin Culver. He volunteered two years ago and, citing Dresser as a role model, now works full time for the state's forest fire control bureau.

Talking about Dresser, Culver recounts an Ashfield fire - the first that he'd ever seen. Dresser, he said, took him aside and explained everything that was happening - what the firefighters were doing and why they were doing it. It was an education at the hands of a master.

'I learned so many things from him,' said Culver. 'I just hope that everything keeps up in the department after his departure.'

'There's nobody who could match him,' said Labrie. 'Somebody's got some huge boots to fill.'

But Dresser is ready to leave those boots behind. Alongside Ruth, he'll still run the family business on Route 9. They rent P.A. systems and pump gas, although, as Kim says, 'Mom succeeded and they now lock up at 8 p.m. instead of midnight.'

They'll spend more time with their four grandchildren. And Chief Dresser will no doubt keep a close eye on the department that he helped create and which he led for over half a century.

'He was always there,' said Kim Dresser. 'That's what he did: he was there.'

(Thursday June 29th, 2006)