Remembering ‘The Fireman’ a Great Guy
Chief Jerry W. Wimberly
Feb 20, 1936-June 27, 2013
“I lost my brother”
Judge Claude Wimberly
When the morning call was from Judge Claude Wimberly, I knew it couldn’t be good news. The Judge never makes morning calls. I picked up the phone and he said, “I lost my brother.” I could hear the hurt in his voice. Judge Wimberly is a calloused, old, former justice of the peace, who had witnessed many deaths, often horrible, but the death of his only brother was overcoming him. Jerry had died during the night.
I first met Claude and his younger brother Jerry when we were not long out of our teenage years. Such a long road we traveled, yet it has gone by so swiftly. I recall in the late 1950’s and early 60’s, when the brothers would visit me at my place on the Brazos River. Claude would attend police school at A&M while Jerry came to College Station for fireman school. They never failed to come by for eats and drinks.
We often spoke about a special time when Jerry and Ruby, Phyl and I attended a baseball game at the brand new Astrodome together. It had opened in early April, 1965, and was billed as the “Eighth Wonder of the World,’ and it was. It took your breath away at first sight; the bright colors and massive structure under a roof was amazing. A few weeks earlier, on opening day, in an exhibition game between the New York Yankees and the Astros, Mickey Mantle hit the first homerun in the Dome, off pitcher, Turk Farrell. It was the Yankees’ only run; the Astros won 2-1. On this day Jerry and I were delighted to watch Don Drysdale pitch.
Jerry wasn’t one of those kids who dreamed of becoming a fireman; he just needed a job in 1957. He grabbed an opening with the Orange Fire Department. He hadn’t planned to stay a lifetime but his love for the life of a fireman grew and he stayed 39 years, working his way up to chief. Back then the department was a combination of paid employees and unpaid volunteers. Jerry said he just jumped on the back of a truck and started fighting fires. He said, “Being a fireman today requires a lot of training, I was just told to get on the trailboard of the truck.” Jerry rose to the ranks of captain, assistant chief and finally chief.
Some of the more memorable fires that he worked on were a two-day fire at the county docks in 1958. Then there was the downtown fire where a quarter of a block on Fifth Street was lost. Jerry said the old buildings had been remodeled with two or three ceilings under the roof. The space was hard to get to. Another blaze he helped fight was the one that destroyed the Henke & Pillot grocery store on Sixth and Green. “We lost that whole store,” he said. Many will recall the store was replaced with the Kroger Supermarket on 16th Street.
Many of you might remember the Sunset Grove Country Club colonial style clubhouse which burned because no fire hydrants were close enough. Jerry said, “Two engines relayed water but we couldn’t contain it. “Firefighters do more than extinguish fires, if people have a problem they help, children trapped in bathrooms, locked cars etc. Jerry said he loved being a fireman and his co-workers were special people. Firefighters eat, sleep, watch TV and live together. Firefighters are a close unit. Jokingly Jerry said, “All firemen are good cooks.” He recalled fondly the chiefs and personnel that had been such an important part of his life.
In his early years he worked part time at Claybar Funeral Home. The part time job lasted 20 years and he had a bag full of Lannie Claybar stories. “Few people knew Lannie could play a mean boggie woogie piano,” he said.
Jerry and Ruby had a beautiful life, raised their three sons Mark, James and Robert and a mess of grandkids yet I always saw them as totally opposites. Ruby was in the top echelon of the business world, a successful business person, while jerry was the ultimate fireman. They made it work. When the Chief retired in 1997, the new Central Fire Station wasn’t even on the drawing board but he lived to see it completed. He talked about it with pride.
Over the last few years, he enjoyed his camp at Toledo Lake and the times he spent with other campers. He didn’t fish, “Don’t have to,” he said, “My next door neighbor gives me more fish than I can eat.”
Most Wednesdays he dined with the Lunch Bunch. He had stayed optimist about the cancer battle he was fighting. The week before my June 5th birthday, I detected that he had lost some of that hope and when he didn’t show up for my birthday lunch, I feared I had seen him for the last time. He enjoyed those gatherings and the Lunch Bunch will miss him.
Jerry graduated from Stark High in 1954. For most of those years, I’ve been fortunate to travel down life’s highway with the Wimberly brothers. Now Jerry has left us. A quite man of few words but when he spoke them they meant something. “Chief” was a first class guy and I’m proud to have been his friend.
A large crowd of mourners gathered Sunday, June 30, to pay their last respects. Chief Jerry will be missed. Another friend done gone. Rest in peace “Chief.”