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Firefighter, farmer, school bus driver: Our Neighbor, Dalford Phillips

By WILLIAM PAINE

william.paine@southwesttimes.com

Dalford Phillips lives in a picturesque farmhouse with his wife Daphne on Old Baltimore Road in Draper. He isn’t exactly sure when his house was first constructed, but is confident that it was built at least 200 years ago. Several feet in front of the house, a set of three steps, seemingly without purpose, sit isolated from any nearby structure. Though they’re little more than an oddity now, these steps used to be quite helpful in allowing a lady or gentlemen to mount their horse with minimal effort.

I’d come to ask Dalford about his long history as the Fire Chief of the Draper Volunteer Fire Department but before that came up, I inquired about the school bus that sat parked in his driveway.

It turns out Phillips has been driving a school bus for quite some time. In fact, 2020 marks his 65th year driving a school bus for Pulaski County Public Schools, which means he’s been driving a school bus longer than any other person in the state of Virginia. There’s a good chance that he has been driving one of those big yellow buses longer than anyone else in the country.

I started driving a school bus when I was 16 years old. In Dublin High school there were two adults who would take care of the fuel or take them to the shop to get worked on, but everybody else was just high school kids.”

The going wage for a school bus driver in the mid 1950s was $2 a day, but that was enough to give a high school kid a little spending money and besides, Dalford was in demand. The Dublin High Band Director saw to it that the teenager drove the band everywhere they traveled.

Phillips remembers one trip in particular, when he was driving his fellow students back home in a bad snowstorm. He put chains on the bus wheels then began taking his classmates home, finally ending up in the Snowville area.

You had to dig your way up every hill. I got about halfway up one of those hills over there and couldn’t hold it. I started sliding backward. Enough snow eventually built up behind the wheels to stop it sliding backward and it’s good thing because there was a steep drop off on one side of the road. But I got the kids off the bus and then I backed it out of there. I put the kids back on and I had to come back up through Snowville. All the girls hugged my neck when they got off the bus. The kids were glad to get home that day.”

A school bus driver’s pay is not substantial even today and Phillips, who estimates that he owns 1,000 head of cattle, does not seem to need the extra spending money. So why does an 81-year-old man still head out early in the early morning hours to drive a school bus?

I’ve been doing it for so long, it’s out of habit, I guess. I just enjoy doing it,” said Phillips.

Phillips says that most of the kids he drives to and from school are well behaved but that every once in a while, he’s had to stop the bus settle down a particularly unruly passenger.

When I first started driving a bus, if a kid wouldn’t behave, you could stop the bus, open the door, kick him out and leave him there. I never had to do that but you could. If you did that today, you never would get out of jail!”

Dalford Phillips grew up in Snowville until his dad moved his family to Draper when he was 13 years old.He graduated from Dublin High School in 1958, as part of the first class to have attended the newly built DHS for their entire high school career.

Phillips enjoyed his time at DHS and became active in the Future Farmers of America (FFA). It was in this organization that he became interested in fighting forest fires. The Forest Warden at that time was a fellow named Mack Baker, who also happened to be the Fire Chief of the Draper Volunteer Fire Department.

I started with the Draper Fire Department in 1957 when I was 17. You weren’t supposed to get in till you were 18, but I got in when I was 17.”

Just as Phillips does today in Draper, his father raised cattle at their property on what is now Dallas Freeman Road in Snowville.

Dad told me many a time, after I’d left the hay fields ready to bail to go and fight fires, he said ‘Why don’t you quit the fire department or quit farming, one?’”

Back in those days, fire departments had substantially less funding than is the case today.

You didn’t have pagers. You didn’t have radios in the trucks. The only way you got any money to buy equipment was donations and we had annual suppers that made money. For years, the county gave us $600 to operate on. You didn’t buy new fire engines then. Our equipment then was an old 1947 Chevrolet Truck with a 500 gallon a minute, civil defense pumper. Donny Southern, who owned Southern Welding in Pulaski, took a ’54 Chevrolet that was used to haul gas and made it into a 1,400-gallon tanker,” he said.

In addition, the territory covered was greater.

At that time, Draper and Pulaski covered Hiwassee and Snowville and all of that area,” Phillips explained. “We covered Wythe County almost to the State Police headquarters. But if you have a house on fire that far away, most of the time all you save is the lot.”

Sounding the alarm was different back then, too. In the past, the Draper Volunteer Fire Department was located next door to the Draper Mercantile. Daytime emergency calls would normally come in to the Mercantile and the manager would then go next door and “blow the fire whistle.”

Nighttime calls were usually taken by the Pulaski Fire House and they would call the Draper Fire Chief. He would then call a couple of firefighters, who would in turn call other firefighters.

According to Phillips, sometime in the early 1960s, the Pulaski County Board of Supervisors began giving more significant funding to county fire departments through the Pulaski County Fire Protection Committee, an organization that Phillips gave its title. The Fire Protection Committee still exists to this day and is comprised of two representatives from each fire house in the county. Anything that goes to the board of supervisors for the fire department has to be approved by this committee.

The Draper Volunteer Fire Department received its first new fire truck in the mid-60s and new and better equipment is now more available than ever before.

Working as a volunteer firefighter for the last 64 years, Phillips has seen his share of tragedies.

Back in the country, especially at night, if a house catches fire, sometimes they never wake up. You think the smoke is going to wake you up but a lot of times, you never wake up. I’ve gone to several houses where that’s happened to them.”

Three quarters of calls received at the Draper Volunteer Fire Department involve automobile crashes. Phillips recalls one instance when he and his son Terrance, who is also a member of the fire department, answered a call in Shiloh involving a car fire.

I couldn’t any more than I’d done. You could see the black marks on the road for a month after I went out there. The driver was trapped and it was on fire. It took us a while to get him out and he passed away by the time we got him out.”

Another memorable accident involved a truck driver on Fancy Gap Mountain.

It can be rough. A man was trapped in his truck and it was on fire. The guy tried to get the trooper on scene to shoot him or try to get him to give him the gun himself. He actually burnt up and nobody could get him out,” said Phillips.

Do these memories ever give him nightmares?

No, it never did bother me too much,” said Phillips. “There’s a difference in people. Some people can take it. Some people can’t. I learned a long time ago if you have someone burn up in a house or something like that, you don’t assign people to go in. You ask for volunteers. Some people can go into it and some people can’t. It just depends on the individual.”

 

Dalford Phillips had served as Assistant Chief/Secretary of the Draper Volunteer Fire Department since the early 1960s. In 1990, he became Chief of the Draper Volunteer Fire Department, a position he held until he stepped down from the post in 2018.

When I was running the department as chief, I didn’t cull any calls. I went to them all. You ran a lot of the calls and sometimes you’d stay out all night long and part of the day.”

These days, he’s slowed down and doesn’t answer every call that comes in the middle of the night but he’s most definitely done his duty and inspired another generation to the calling.

I started out in the fire department when I was 17 years old,” he said. “My brother was 10 years younger than me and he joined when he got old enough. My son joined when he got old enough, my brother’s two sons joined and now each one of his sons joined and one of their children is a member of the fire department.”

Long hours and no pay, so what’s appealing about working as a volunteer firefighter.

I just enjoy helping people. When you get a call to the fire department, unless it’s a tree down or something like that, you’re actually going to help somebody who really needs help.”

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