04/02/09 444 W - + 10 - 15 The First Retiree

Who was the first firefighter to retire in Raleigh? The answer is Willis L. Choplin, 59, who retired as a private (base rank of Firefighter) on Feb. 1, 1949, with 34 years of service. He was one of the first 12 city employees to leave their jobs through a recently adopted retirement system. Choplin was the oldest active member when he left, having served under eight fire chiefs.

When he joined, the fire department had only "two stations, two horse-drawn hose trucks and two pairs of steeds for motive power." He recounted "We'd open the stalls when the fire-bell clanged and they'd come tearing out and take their place beside the truck under the harnesses with no directions needed."

Choplin cited his "worst fire" as the Insane Asylum blaze in 1926. While he was "working down the hall with hose on the second floor," he remembered, he caught "hold of a metal pipe which had become charged by an electrical short circuit." The electricity "paralyzed him and he couldn't release the pipe" and "had to be knocked loose with a board wielded by several others" who "came to his rescue."

One of his station mates remembered that Choplin was known as the "only man in the department who could life one of the fire trucks off the bround with his back."

Choplin's story comes by way of his daughter, who talked to a retired fireman, who talked to current member, who talked to Yours Truly. A quick trip to the local history library confirmed his daughter's memories.

The retirement plan, newspaper articles from that period report, was effective Jan. 1, 1949, and the first retirements were made on Feb. 1 of that year. All employees 72 years old or older were required to retire. Voluntary retirements were available at age 55 for fire and police. Retirement was not available to city employees who were age 60 when hired by the city.

Retiring employees, the full list:

Sources: Raleigh Times Jan. 31, 1949; News & Observer, Feb. 1, 1949.

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