Westminster firefighter Sterling “Pete” Petry Sr., 85, of Westminster, passed away on Sept. 15, at Carroll Lutheran Village Healthcare Center. On Oct. 1, friends, family, and firefighters from Carroll and Howard counties crowded into The Historical Museum of the Westminster Fire Department for a celebration of Petry’s life.
We gathered together to not only mourn the loss of Petry, and pay our respects to his friends, family and colleagues, but also to mourn the loss of an era. We shared Petry for more than 60 years in the fire service as a companion in our pilgrimage on this earth in the service of our community. He was a fixture at the Westminster Fire Department and over the years his knowledge, skills, and ability as a leader, an engineer, driver, and EMS provider assumed a legendary status discussed in hushed tones.
Remember, his career spanned an era when operating complicated pumps and fire suppression equipment was all about complex math, levers, valves and gears. Essentially, none of the fire suppression machinery was aided by electronics and it certainly was not computer assisted.
Petry was among scores of individuals in Carroll County who selflessly dedicated their lives for the single purpose of protecting the health, safety, and welfare of friends, neighbors, and fellow citizens. They dedicated their lives for a purpose far greater than themselves — to save and protect the life and property of total strangers.
Former engineer Petry was a “life member” of the Westminster Fire Engine and Hose Co. No. 1. On March 5, 1953, he married Martha K. (Hetrick) Petry, who died in 2013. Petry was born on Feb. 7, 1936, in Westminster, to the David Oscar and Mabel (Robertson) Petry.
He joined the Westminster Fire Department on April 4, 1962. He retired as a paid firefighter in 1996. He was honored as the Westminster Firefighter of the Year in 1977 for heroism performed beyond the call of duty.
According to Westminster Fire Department President Danny Plunkert, Petry worked at the department in the days before the labor laws changed. In his day, he was both a volunteer and a paid member of the department. Today, firefighters are not allowed to be a paid employee with the fire department where they also volunteer. His work schedule was seven 10-hour workdays in a row. Then, one day off, followed by seven 14-hour night shifts in a row. One day off and repeat.
In those days, the paid engineer on the night shift also served as the dispatcher for the Westminster Police Department. Before 1942, the fire station was also the base of operations for the Westminster Police Department, and in the days before 1961, the Maryland State Police also used the station as a base of operations.
Often overlooked in recalling the history of the Westminster Fire Department is the little-known fact that Westminster has had paid employees to supplement its volunteer staffing since 1926 when the city hired four firefighters to serve as paid drivers on a 24-hour basis.
From 1896 until 1942, the Westminster city offices were located at the old fire station on Main Street and the leadership of the fire department also served as the leadership of Westminster city government.
And for many of the years after the first motor-driven piece of equipment was purchased by the department in 1918, the Westminster Fire Department had the only ambulance in the county. According to a written history of the department, “The year 1918 saw the fire company buy its first motor driven engine, a Republic 350-gallon capacity pumper that was followed in 1919 by an American La France 750-gallon pumper.
In 1928, Westminster purchased an ambulance unit. According to a written history of the department, it was the “Rotary Club of Westminster that prevailed upon the city government to buy the volunteers an ambulance.” However it is oral tradition that the Women’s Club of Westminster “required” the Rotary Club to lobby for the purchase the ambulance. This was long before Carroll County had a local hospital and serious medical emergencies and difficult labor and deliveries often needed to be transported by the Westminster Fire Department to hospitals in Baltimore. In those days, the territory covered by the Westminster Fire Department included much of Carroll County.
It is in this context of the distinguished and celebrated history and tradition of the fire service in Westminster and Carroll County that Petry stepped up to the plate to serve in 1962. Over the years he stood forth as a leader and celebrated member of the community. According to Plunkert, Petry chaired the committee that oversaw the construction of the third engine bay and the social hall at the old station on Main Street. The addition to the station, “paved the way for more space, and fundraising opportunities to make the department what it is today,” Plunkert said.
We have been blessed by so many great folks, such as Petry, who have gone before us and remain inextricably woven into the fabric of what we are today as a county.
Petry was a well-respected fire and emergency services leader, whose passion for the fire service and his community is the stuff of legend. He will be greatly missed.
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Kevin Dayhoff writes from Westminster. His Time Flies column appears every Sunday. Email him at email@example.com.