VERGENNES — Gray skies provided a somber backdrop on Wednesday morning as a funeral service at St. Peter’s Catholic Church, a procession through the streets of downtown Vergennes and a Final Alarm at the Vergennes Volunteer Fire Department for longtime Chief Ralph J. Jackman drew about 600 people for an emotional farewell.
Jackman, a Bristol native, Waltham resident and tireless community volunteer whose 55 years as chief of the city department is believed to be a unmatched accomplishment, died at home on Saturday at the age of 85.
Jackman had resigned in October after a total of 62 years with the department, during which he received the lion’s share of credit for its reputation for competency and innovation.
Fittingly, Wednesday’s procession began and ended at the Green Street fire station built during his tenure. Jackman’s flag-draped coffin rode on Pumper No. 316. A dozen flag- and ax-carrying firefighters and another three-dozen marching firefighters led the gleaming truck, and behind it followed eight pallbearers and Jackman’s five daughters, who walked side by side, often holding hands.
The procession wound its way to an equally fitting destination, nearby St. Peter’s, where Jackman was a communicant and faithful volunteer. Another 100 firefighters from all parts of Vermont and beyond flanked the walkway and saluted as Jackman’s coffin was carried in, with his family members and his extended family — the members of the Vergennes fire department — following behind.
In the standing-room only church, St. Peter’s parish priest Father Yvon Royer was joined in performing the funeral mass by five priests who formerly served in Vergennes and knew Jackman and his family: Fathers Skip Balch, Gerard Leclerc, Leo Bilodeau, Michael Augustinowitz and Pierre Lavallee.
At the Jackman family’s request, former Vergennes firefighter and Ferrisburgh Fire Chief Bob Jenkins recited “The Fireman’s Prayer,” and former Bristol Fire Department Chief Mark Bouvier delivered a eulogy. (Many other community members, public officials and fellow firefighters also paid tribute to Jackman’s character and legacy of service; see related story.)
Bouvier, of course, spoke about Jackman’s unparalleled record of leadership and innovation in the fire service, not only in Vergennes, but also at the county and statewide levels.
“I think I can say without question his record of 55 years as fire chief will probably never be surpassed. If you look around this church today, you will see a testament to the respect and love many of us have for this man we call Chief,” Bouvier said. “His legacy, his vision, will remain with us for years to come.”
Bouvier noted Jackman pioneered the use of several types of equipment in Vermont, and also emphasized training and created the state’s first cadet program.
“As an innovator, as a leader in the fire service, he was not afraid to look ahead to not only embrace new ideas and concepts, but he challenged us, especially as young officers, to throw out the old ways of doing business if it no longer fit the bill,” he said.
Bouvier also took a lighthearted look at Jackman’s personality, including his creative scorekeeping while playing golf and during regular card games with his twin brother, Fred, who died almost exactly a year ago after a distinguished career in the Bristol fire department.
And he focused on Jackman’s volunteerism — his countless Meals on Wheels deliveries, regular pick-ups of recyclables for elderly residents, his quiet donations to those in need, his care in making sure fuel oil customers didn’t go without, and his steady service to the Rotary and Addison County Eagles clubs and American Legion Post 14.
But more than anything, Bouvier talked about Jackman’s devotion to his family, starting with his wife of 63 years, Myrle; his five daughters and sons-in-law; and his grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
He thanked Myrle Jackman for her part in Jackman’s service.
“There’s an old saying that if you think it’s tough being a firefighter, try being a firefighter’s wife,” Bouvier said. “I don’t know of any other firefighter’s wife who has shared a spouse as much as you have, Myrle. On behalf of every firefighter here who has benefited from your husband’s time, thank you. Thank you so very much.”
Bouvier also had a message for Jackman’s grandchildren to pass on to their children.
“Tell them how your grandfather gave to his country, he gave to his community and the fire service, and above all, he gave his love to what mattered most of all, his family,” he said.
After the funeral mass, the procession reformed and returned to the fire station. Pumper No. 316 pulled in front of the station on Green Street as the firefighters marched crisply into formation in the station lot. They stood at attention and saluted again as the pumper blew three mournful blasts on its horn.
Firefighters and family then headed for Bristol, and Jackman went to his final resting place in the cemetery at St. Joseph Cemetery.
FORMER VERGENNES FIRE Chief Ralph Jackman’s coffin is carried past a gathering of local firefighters after Jackman’s funeral Wednesday morning.
Independent photo/Trent Campbell
Before Jackman’s six decades of service to the Vergennes area, he took up arms for his country. At the age of 19, Jackman was drafted in 1944 into the U.S. Army and almost immediately was assigned to the 1st Division in the European Theater. That winter, he fought in the Battle of the Bulge, the final great Nazi offensive of the war.
After Allied forces finally repelled the Nazi attack, Jackman and his mortar unit helped liberate Prague, Czechoslovakia. Jackman described in a 2001 interview with the Independent how his unit dropped a mortar shell down the chimney of a cabin a quarter-mile away that was serving as a local Nazi headquarters. On the same day, three weeks before Germany surrendered, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt died.
After the war ended, Jackman, by then a 1st sergeant, helped guard Nazi criminals in Nuremberg during war crimes trials. During Jackman’s stint, Hermann Goering, Hitler’s deputy fuehrer, committed suicide the day before he was to be hanged. Jackman later served with the U. S. Army Reserves until 1972.
In 1946, Jackman married Myrle Jacobs, his high school sweetheart, and Jackman and his brother Charles also founded Jackman Fuels Inc., from which Ralph Jackman retired in 1989.
It was in 1947 that Jackman followed a family tradition and signed on with the Vergennes Volunteer Fire Department. Seven years later, at the age of 30, he became its chief.
Jackman’s years leading the department were not without some controversy. In the early 1960s, Jackman twice while traveling found trucks he believed the city should own and bought them with his own money.
In an October interview with the Independent, Jackman recalled how the mayor responded to Jackman’s arrival with a pumper truck purchased in New Jersey.
“The mayor told me to get it the hell out of town because I own it,” he said. “I eventually sold it to the city for $3,000.”
But city taxpayers have never questioned Jackman’s department when it asked for major bonds, including in 1994 to buy two new trucks and more recently in 2008, when it asked for $450,000 to buy three used trucks. In Jackman’s October resignation memo he cited those two major equipment purchases as two of his proudest accomplishments.
In that letter, he also listed as important milestones the city’s new fire station and having his department being the first in Vermont to have a hose reel truck, a four-inch hose, and a cadet program.
And he added to that list of his favorite moments his seeing three grandsons complete cadet training and becoming firefighters, and his daughters Catherine and Christine becoming Vermont’s first female firefighters.
Outside of Vergennes, Jackman served multiple terms as the president of the Addison County Firefighters’ Association and two terms as the president of the Vermont Firefighters’ Association, and worked on many local and state committees. The state association’s annual cadet academy is named after Jackman, and this fall county firefighters also voted to name their annual Cadet of the Year award after Jackman.
But, as Bouvier noted on Wednesday morning, those commitments came second to Jackman’s family.
“The common thread you will find that runs through the fabric of this man was his love for his family, his wife, five daughters and son-in-laws, and later in life his grandchildren and great-grandchildren,” Bouvier said. “He was a great Pop, as he was called.”