Answering the call: Volunteer firefighter Richard Ford honored for 43 years of service


By Heather Lusk

One of the most recent recipients of the Sagamore of the Wabash award, Indiana’s highest honor bestowed by the governor, is a Zionsville resident who has been a volunteer firefighter for 43 years.

“I never did anything out of the ordinary,” said Richard Ford, who was presented the award by State Rep. Donna Schaibley during the annual Firefighter’s Ball in February.

According to several friends and family members, Ford is very humble.

“He values what he does as very simple and something anyone would do,” said Zionsville Fire Dept. Deputy Chief Brian Miller. “People don’t do that anymore. You don’t get people to stop what they’re doing and help somebody.”

The 85-year-old Ford still lives in the same neighborhood where he grew up. He met his future wife, Patsy, while attending school in the building that now houses the Hussey-Mayfield Memorial Public Library.

After graduating from Zionsville Community High School, he joined the navy reserve and served several tours of duty. Returning to Zionsville, he began working for Swiget Lumber as a driver, and a decade later he began cabinet building.

Ford said he became a volunteer firefighter in 1973.

“They were short of help in the daytime,” he said, and Ford happened to be available then. He drove the firetruck, which was familiar for him after driving a lumber truck for years. He had to know how to drive all six of the trucks – two pumpers, two tankers, a rescue and a grass truck – and be ready to take whichever truck was needed for the type of emergency.

At the time the fire department was made up of people who lived and were employed in town, which is what made the volunteer fire department work, according to Miller. They were close enough to respond to an emergency and had employers who would allow these members to leave as needed. Ford recalls there were 20 to 30 men volunteering.

Ford said when there was a fire, the department would set off sirens located around the town. That was the signal for the volunteer firemen to hurry to the station to be told where to go.

“You had a blue light on your car, and you’d go rushing to the station,” he said.

Ford still goes to the station when there is a call and helps with logistics and serves as a statistician, tracking when the trucks leave and when they return. While much of the tracking is automated, Miller said that it’s an important log for the firehouse.

“We use the paper backup quite often,” he said.

Ford was the driver when Miller’s father was a volunteer fireman and was still a regular fixture at the firehouse when Miller started.

“As the younger firefighters come in, they see him as someone who’s been here for a while,” Miller said. “He was our driver (20 years ago). He took us to every fire safely.”

In 2015, Ford responded to 309 calls, 5,751 in the past 10 years. Prior to that, records were manually recorded and are very difficult to track, but Miller estimated he was probably more involved in previous decades. Because Zionsville was smaller, there were fewer runs on a weekly basis but there were more opportunities for Ford to drive.

“The guy was probably still going on 85 percent of the runs every time the pager went off,” Miller said.

“Nothing happens at the most opportune times. It’s when that pager goes off he gets up and interrupts his day and comes to the station” Miller said. “He still wakes up, he still leaves his house, he still leaves his wife.”

And Pasty Ford is not to be forgotten for her part in the recognition.

“She is just as responsible for the amount of time he leaves the house, as well as his kids and grandkids,” Miller said. Ford had two children and has three grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.

The night of the Fireman’s Ball when Ford was recognized for his years of service, he almost didn’t attend.

“My daughter says, you’re going to win an award, I hate to tell you,” Ford said. “I had no idea what it was.”

He didn’t have any inkling as his years of service and dedication were described, and Ford said it wasn’t until they said his name that he realized the award was being presented to him.

Ford said he finds the recognition “a little embarrassing.”

“There’s a lot more people who deserve it,” he said.

But others disagree.

“He’s had an impact on a lot of people who have crossed the threshold at the firehouse, that’s for sure,” Miller said.

What is the Sagamore of the Wabash?

According to information from the State of Indiana, the Sagamore of the Wabash award was created during the term of Governor Ralph Gates, who served from 1945 to 1949. The term “sagamore” was used by Native Americans to describe a great man among the tribe to whom the true chief would look for wisdom and advice.

The award is highest honor which the Governor of Indiana bestows. It is a personal tribute usually given to those who have rendered a distinguished service to the state or to the governor. Among these who have received Sagamores have been astronauts, presidents, ambassadors, artists, musicians, politicians, and ordinary citizens who have contributed greatly to the Hoosier heritage.

There is no record of the total number which have been presented, as each governor has kept his own roll; just as each has reserved the right to personally select the recipients.