Helping people: Chief Jerry Brooks to retire after more than a half a century with the Clemmons Fire Department
Published 12:10 am Thursday, December 22, 2022
For Jerry Brooks, it’s always been about service to others.
It goes all the way back to when he was a little boy.
“My grandmother always pounded it in my head that everybody is here to help each other in service to people, and the fire department is a truly service-driven organization no matter whether it’s paid or volunteers,” Brooks said. “It’s helping people.”
Now 75, and entering his final days on the job as fire chief in Clemmons after announcing he was planning to retire on Dec. 31, Brooks has held steadfast to those beliefs since he joined the local fire department as a volunteer in 1971 — more than a half a century ago. He became chief in 1979 and paid chief in 1989, with the only difference being “just getting a check,” he said.
Do the math. That’s 51 years in the same place he has also called home during that time, including 43 years as the man in charge of a fire department that has grown exponentially right along with the town.
Sitting behind his desk in his office last Wednesday in the James Street fire station — surrounded by walls and a bookcase full of awards, plaques and other mementos highlighting his storied career — Brooks had just received the key to the city two days earlier in appreciation for his years of outstanding service by the Clemmons Village Council.
“I was told I needed to be there on December the 12th, and I said, ‘I don’t need to do that.’ It’s not about me. It’s about those guys and their families over there.”
Typical Jerry Brooks. It’s never been about him. It’s family… faith… fire department, but maybe not in that order.
Ed Armstrong, deputy fire chief and president of the Clemmons Fire Department’s board of directors, has known Brooks since the early days.
“Jerry’s just a great guy,” Armstrong said. “I’ve known him for over 50 years and enjoyed serving under his administration. He’s family first and department second. Actually, I think it’s God first, family and then department in terms of what he believes.”
Larry Kirby, the former Public Works director and town manager in Clemmons, has been a great friend, neighbor and worked alongside Brooks for years as a volunteer fireman.
“I don’t know anybody that has shown as much concern and care and love for a community than he has,” Kirby said. “He’s been as dedicated to fire service almost as he has been to his church (Clemmons United Methodist Church).”
Again, back to his grandmother, Brooks said, “Trust me, my grandmother, she never let up about helping people and told me to carry John 3:16, which I always read.”
Also setting the stage for what would eventually turn into a career path, his dad used to take young Jerry to the city fire department that governed the South Side in Winston-Salem, particularly in the spring and summer on Sunday and Monday to just stop by and talk.
However, upon graduating from Gray High School in 1965, he started out commuting back and forth to High Point College in a two-year program to be a licensed funeral director and went to work for Vogler’s Funeral Home before being drafted in 1968 and joining the Army.
The first stop for Brooks was Fort Bragg for basic training and then on to Fort Gordon, and after finishing there, he and his high school sweetheart, Karen, got married. Two weeks later, Brooks was headed to Germany.
“More or less after getting off the airplane, they said don’t unpack too much because you’ll be loading up and going to California to get your general training and then to Vietnam,” Brooks said. “Me and two other guys had been there about three weeks, and the sergeant major of that battalion called the three of us in and because of our jobs, he said, ‘You’re here, and you’ll stay here.’ I’ve told everybody, I’ve been blessed. I had some high school buddies that went over to Vietnam and died.”
Brooks said he waited about a month, and Karen, who was a nurse at Forsyth Medical Center, came to Germany to join him — getting into the country on a letter from the Red Cross.
“We weren’t so sure she was going to get in,” said Brooks, who added they were there for more than two years before he was able to come back home from the military in 1971.
Brooks returned to Vogler’s to work, and he and his wife started looking for a house, which they found in the Rollingreen neighborhood in Clemmons. It was then that Brooks stopped by the old fire department.
“There were some guys outside, and I asked about it,” he said. “I had an interest.”
The rest, as the old saying goes, is history.
“I proceeded with the activities and the training and so forth and kind of went up the steps,” Brooks said of the path from joining the department as a volunteer and moving up to lieutenant, captain and then chief.
• • • • •
Ask Jerry Brooks about his accomplishments, and you won’t hear about him being awarded the prestigious Order of the Long Leaf Pine, which is presented by the governor of North Carolina to individuals who have a proven record of extraordinary service to the state…
Or being named the past president of the N.C. State Firemen’s Association in 1989-90, or the past president of the Forsyth County Firefighter and Chiefs Association and Officer of the Year in 2014, or past president of the Piedmont Firefighters Association and Chief of the Year in 2015…
Or any of the other accolades over the years for the Clemmons Fire Department under his leadership…
“The biggest thing we did and is still important is the (fire) rating,” said Brooks, who pointed out that for many years the best all rural departments could get was a Class 9-AA rating. “Then they got involved in rural water through the ISO insurance office.”
Brooks said that Clemmons going from that level “to a 6 was almost unheard of. A 6 is the best you can do for homeowners as far as insurance. Then we got to a 5, which helped the business community and then we went to Class 3 a few years ago, which is just about unheard of for rural departments and impacts the business community.”
In one of his last acts on the job, the Clemmons fire department went through an inspection last Tuesday, and Brooks is hopeful of climbing another notch to Class 2, but that won’t be known until after his official departure.
Certainly, the Clemmons Fire Department has come a long way since its beginning in 1951, when the fire truck was housed in the lube station at the old Triangle Service Station. The James Street fire station came along in 1983, and that was followed by the addition of the Peace Haven fire station many years later.
“We have built two stations out here and are fortunate they are located where we can easily get to our community property,” Brooks said. “We cover about 21 square miles now, and in 90 percent of our fire district, we can get there in four to five minutes.”
Along with seeing the department expand from all volunteers to 26 people now on the payroll to go along with 23 volunteers, Brooks has witnessed all the changes in technology over the years — going back to the old days with just sirens and then along came radios, pagers, cell phones/internet and now even drones.
Then there’s the equipment, with the latest engine being delivered last week from Wisconsin with a price tag of close to $800,000 to go along with “the big truck” that arrived in 2011 at a cost of $1.2 million with a 100-foot ladder to handle commercial property growth and the new hospital.
“Novant helped us with that,” Brooks said. “It’s a big truck with a big motor. Everything in it is big. We’ve now got five pieces of fire apparatus, one heavy rescue truck, one small brush support vehicle and a medical vehicle — and actually nine with the 1951 (truck) we have here but don’t count it. It is used for public education.”
And some small things have made a difference as well.
“We’ve had some large fires and had a couple with fatalities, but with the invention of the smoke detector, people are getting out and getting the word quicker,” he said. “That little $12 device has saved a lot of people and a lot of money.
“We have about eight or nine working fires a year. With the advent of the smoke alarms and the active 911 system, that’s a big deal, too. Almost 60 percent of what we do now is medical assist.”
Kirby said that Brooks always embraced the importance of training and equipment back in the day, and that has never changed.
“Before we went on the tax program, we went around and knocked on doors and asked for donations to operate the fire department for the next year, and we always got what we needed,” Kirby said. “We always seemed to have Jerry to come up with a budget that wouldn’t go over what we got and save a few dollars for the next year. He always had a plan.”
While first accomplishing his “fireman skills” before taking over as volunteer chief in 1979, Brooks had already gone back to work at Vogler’s when he returned from the military and remained in his role at the funeral home — working in both capacities — until becoming the paid chief in 1989.
“I worked for the Vogler family about 25 years,” he said. “They were very good to me and very understanding.”
Not only did he become the paid fire chief in Clemmons in 1989, Brooks took over president of the N.C. State Firemen’s Association in 1989 and 1990.
“Jerry made sure that when he traveled across the state that people knew he was from the Clemmons Fire Department,” Kirby said. “He wasn’t there for Jerry Brooks.”
As for Clemmons itself, the village truly holds a special place in his heart.
“I’ve lived out here 51 years,” Brooks said. “I get asked about Clemmons. I just say we’re just a neat little place with a lot of people. It’s been interesting, and I’ve got to do a lot of things I never dreamed of in my life.”
• • • • •
So what’s next for Brooks, after being in the fire service business for nearly two-thirds of his life?
“I’ve been asked about that a little bit,” he said. “I guess this is as good a time as any. I’d like to play a little golf, and I’ll do some piddling. I truly enjoy watching my grandson, Austin, shoot clays, and he’s good. He’s working on his master shooter now. I think I’ve missed maybe one or two of his tournaments. I want to be able to watch Meredith, who has three more years of school left at West, play ball in the spring and fall. She’s little, but she’s a pitcher. Her mama was a catcher.”
That’s daughter Shannon Brooks Casey, who was a standout athlete at West and now there as a teacher and assistant athletics director. She received a scholarship to play softball at UNCG.
“Karen saw every game she played in college,” Brooks said. “I saw every game, but I missed two innings in one game when I had to bring back a fire truck from down east.”
Regarding his wife of 54 years, Kirby said: “Karen is an amazing partner and wife. She has always been there for him but has always been the silent person behind him telling him when he was doing it right and when he was doing it wrong.”
What will he miss most after all these years leading the local fire department?
“The people,” he quickly responded. “I tell everybody I’m retiring, but I’m not going away.”
Plenty of people stand out along the way while Brooks led the fire department.
“Two folks out here helped me a whole lot,” he said. “Pete Brewer was the board chairman when I was hired. Jack Higgins was kind of like a second father to me. And Ed Armstrong. He’s a retired school president, president of the board of directors and now deputy fire chief of this department. We’ve got 53 years together.”
Then there’s Kirby, his longtime friend, neighbor and one he has worked with in the fire department and alongside their roles as fire chief and public works director, respectively.
“My buddy’s back there,” Brooks said of Kirby, who attended the council meeting when he received the key to the city. “We’ve been out here at 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning, in bad weather, coming through passing each other on the streets.”
An emotional Brooks paused … “Some of this stuff is hard.”
Virginia Foxx, who represents the 5th District in the U.S. House, is one he “hit it off with a long time ago” along with Mary Cameron, who has served on the Clemmons Village Council for more than 25 years. She remembers her first conversation with Brooks not long after moving to Clemmons in the ’80s.
“Shortly after the village incorporated, we had an Appearance Committee that I was on,” Cameron said. “We decided that we wanted to plant some flowering things at the ramps at I-40, so I was given the job of calling Chief Jerry Brooks to find out if they had some kind of equipment that would help us. I knew nothing. We had only been here a year. So I called Jerry, and we talked well over an hour. And finally he says, Ms. Cameron, ‘You and I are going to get along real good because you don’t take no guff from nobody, and neither do I.’
“If you look at where we came from, which was 5,000 people when I moved here in 1984 to over 22,000 now and two fire stations and the record that they have for containing fires and the small amount of loss that we’ve had over the years, he’s just done amazing things.”
Armstrong said that it comes down to personal touch and the way Brooks has always handled things in his role leading the fire department.
“The most important thing is he serves with integrity in terms of our community and what needed to happen in a lot of different ways, not just the fire service but the community as a whole and what we had to add to it,” Armstrong said. “Answering calls here is a personal thing. He knows most of the people of Clemmons. When you answer a call and it’s somebody you know, it makes a difference in how you handle it. Jerry is a guy who has a heart for people and he’s not afraid to express his views.”
Mayor Mike Rogers had these words to say when giving Brooks the key to the city: “The Village of Clemmons has become a better community with his leadership and service. Great leaders don’t set out to be a leader, they set out to make a difference. It’s never about the role. It’s always about the goal. Thank you Chief Brooks for a job well done!”