By Cesca Waterfield
Impressive architecture and curb appeal are part of what makes a town great, but a town’s buildings and courtyards pale in importance to its citizens. When it comes to the building blocks of Montross, William “Billy” Sydnor, along with his late wife, Pearl, are cornerstones.
Billy was recently honored for 50 years of service with the Westmoreland Fire Department. In five decades of consistent valor and service to others, Billy has answered fire calls even when they came at 2 a.m. or during birthday celebrations; attended meetings after being discharged an hour earlier from the hospital; and run to the aid of a neighbor without thought for himself. Billy Sydnor has done all of these things and more.
Although he became a role model firefighter, Billy wasn’t initially in a hurry to join. He was 22 when an older firefighter urged him to volunteer. “Every time he’d see me, he’d would say the same thing. I kept waiting,” Billy admits. “I joined March 21, 1963.”
A month later, he found himself facing “a big forest fire in King George. I’ll tell you, I was kind of scared too,” Billy admits. “I’m just going to tell you the truth.” He spent his 23rd birthday fighting that fire, away from his wife Pearl. A few days later the fire department rushed to extinguish another woods fire. “I spent my wife’s 23rd birthday over there,” he remembers. “So we spent our birthdays apart.”
During 51 years of marriage the Sydnors were rarely apart. Pearl was active in the Fire Department Auxiliary and the couple belonged to Providence United Methodist Church. In 2011 Billy was named Grand Marshall of the Fall Festival. A photo framed and hung near the kitchen shows Billy and Pearl waving from a red convertible in the Fall Festival Parade. Photos of the Sydnors and their loved ones fill the den along with firefighter memorabilia including ceramic firemen that Pearl painted. Pearl passed away on August 25, 2012.
A wall covered with plaques is testament to Billy’s dedication to fighting fires over the years. He often earned “Top Responder” of the year for answering the most calls including the 12-year period between 1999 to 2011. “Every time you hear that siren, you hear Billy’s truck start up,” says Elaine Harrington, Billy’s neighbor.
One summer afternoon in 2009, Elaine popped a slice of pizza in the oven and went to check email. “The next thing I know, smoke was billowing,” she recalls. “I yelled to Pearl and she yelled to Billy. He came in his socks and he grabbed the fire extinguisher out of my hands. By that time the flames were up the ceiling; the whole wall was ablaze. He got that fire out before the fire department got here. I’ve always said he was my hero. He came in, he didn’t care for his own safety, he was going to get that fire out.”
“I was just doing what I was supposed to do,” Billy says. His voice carries a note of wonder, and his words, humility.
“Here it is 50 years later and I’m still in there,” he says. “It’s a good fire department. I wouldn’t have traded it for nothing. Sometimes you’re a little bit too late to really save the house. Overall, you feel good about what you do. You’re out there trying to help people. A lot of times you do. And the people appreciate it too. I’m getting a little old now. Time for the young ones to step up and take over. But I have really enjoyed it.”
When the 2 a.m. fire calls come, maybe Billy will take a much-deserved rest in the home he and Pearl moved into in October 1974, a home he loves.
“I have the best neighbors in this whole wide world,” Billy says, “the best neighbors a person could ever wish for.”
Words that those who know him would echo about Billy Sydnor.