Updated July 1
Tisbury Fire Chief John Schilling received an all-Island surprise tribute Monday night at Veterans Memorial Park. After 40 years on the Tisbury Fire Department, 18 as chief, Monday marked Schilling’s final duty evening.
Led by Tisbury Ambulance coordinator Tracey Jones, Schilling’s friends, family, and colleagues plotted many days in advance to lure him out to where thanks could be shown in a big way. Just after 9 pm, a page went out for an illegal burn at the park. Schilling looked genuinely stunned when he didn’t see an illegal burn, but instead found himself walking through a corridor of blaring fire apparatus from every department on the Vineyard. And beyond that, a field of masked and applauding firefighters, EMS personnel, and well-wishers. And beside them, a stationary convoy of police and sheriff’s vehicles, blue lights blazing.
“He had no idea,” Jones exclaimed as Schilling walked out to meet all those who gathered to honor him.
Such was the respect for the chief that the effort to surprise him remained a secret in six fire departments, six police departments, four EMS departments, the Dukes County Sheriff’s Office, and among friends and family.
Schilling spoke briefly through the mic of Tisbury Engine 622. He expressed his thanks and said he’s still processing the closure of his 18-year tour as chief. He then went out into the field to extend his thanks, and shared a few elbow bumps.
Schilling joined the Tisbury Fire Department in 1980 under the leadership of Richard (“Dick”) Clark. He was promoted to lieutenant in 1987, captain in 1993, assistant chief in 2000, and chief in 2002.
When he joined, and under much of his tenure, the fire station was by the Post Office near Five Corners.
“When the call would go out, there were enough guys working in town that people would run from all over town, literally, to the station,” he said. “That’s the way things were at that point in time. Main Street was the center of commercial year-round activity.”
Schilling recalled many of those firefighters as they scrambled to fire calls. “Les [Leland] the pharmacist, of course Dick [Clark] was at Brickman’s at the head of the street, and Ken Ward coming out of the insurance office, Ed Colligan at the appliance store, Bob Tilton down at the hardware store — it was that early community vision you had of volunteer fire departments.”
Schilling described it as a “more innocent time,” when firefighters still rode on the backs of trucks. In one such trip, he recalled traveling to Chilmark on the back of a truck to fight a fire at the Allen Farm: “It was a wonder none of us ever got hurt by what we did.”
Schilling received quite a nod in his fire career from the get-go when he was asked to join the Legion company, a special fire unit founded by WWI veterans and re-upped by WWII veterans.
“I had come up through the ranks in my company,” he said. “I was a member of the Legion Pumper. And I was the first non-Legionnaire to get on the Legion Pumper, Engine 3.”
The crew was starting to “mature,” and young vets weren’t falling in behind them, he said, and the decision to modify the criteria for being on the pumper crew ensued.
“So I was the first non-Legion member of that company, when I joined in 1980.”
He eventually rose to captain of the company. “Company captain is the most fun in the fire department,” he said.
Schilling’s ascension to the top of the department began when Assistant Fire Chief Allan Davie prepared to retire.
“We had an assistant chief who was aging out, and the chief approached me — would I consider stepping into the assistant chief role? And we all knew, [the chief] was aging out 18 months from there.”
So it was something of a double ask.
“This was a big step here,” he said. Schilling, who was employed as an insurance agent, and beginning to see trends in that industry that ran counter to his “own personal philosophies,” realized a new opportunity presented itself, even though the chief’s job was part-time in those days.
“My wife and I talked about that for a while, and looked at it as an opportunity,” he said.
Former Tisbury Fire Chief Dick Clark said the choice to pick Schilling as his replacement was simple. “I thought he was the best available for the job,” he said.
Fast-forward 18 years, and Chief Clark remains pleased with his decision to leave the department in Schilling’s hands. “He’s done great,” he said. “I think his replacement will do a good job.”
That new chief is Greg Leland, who was sworn in on Monday by town clerk Hillary Conklin. Leland said Schilling saw something in him, and helped him develop as a fire officer. He commended the culture of continuous training Schilling has instilled in the department, and made note of the “uncanny” trust his department has in him.
“He pretty much has the highest moral character of anyone I’ve seen in this field,” Leland said.
Schilling said he’s responded to a number of memorable fires, including a huge one at Gannon and Benjamin that saw Engine 3 driven right out onto the beach in front of the Black Dog Tavern to draft from the harbor.
However, the king of conflagrations in his time was the Tisbury Inn fire of 2001. Now known as the Mansion House, the building caught fire in the night.
“That was my last big one,” Chief Clark said. “That was a big fire. That was the biggest building in town except for the Tisbury School.”
Schilling wasn’t immediately on scene, Clark said. “He got there late because he was in a band.”
Susie Goldstein, who with her family owns and operates the Mansion House, described it as a “very scary night,” tempered by a well-orchestrated fire response, including one fire officer dressed for a night in Monte Carlo.
“He showed up in a tuxedo,” she said. “I’ll never forget that. It was amazing.”
Schilling, who like his wife Julie is a musician, has played the trumpet for more than 50 years in the Vineyard Haven Band. He’d been in Edgartown playing at a holiday event. After hastening back, he eventually threw his turnout gear over his tuxedo. Schilling, who grew a smile recalling the tuxedo, described the multitown response as quintessential Vineyard firefighting — everyone pitching in for the common good — though he marveled at how they pulled it off in an era without unified command, firefighter rehab capacity, and other modern aspects of firefighting.
Goldstein saw a well-oiled machine. “It looked like they’d fought fire like this several times,” she said. She recalled the response almost looked choreographed.
“The way he conducted himself…” she said of Schilling.
Asked if there were ever moments, after he became chief, when he would rather be fighting a fire instead of coordinating the response to it, Schilling said it’s a temptation no chief can afford to indulge, and it takes time to learn not to succumb to the urge, to “think more globally.”
Ever the musician, Schilling likened the role of chief at a fire response to being a conductor.
“You have an awareness of the scene that the individual firefighter doesn’t have because you’re looking at it from a much larger perspective, and you’re standing back and you aren’t engaged — it’s interesting the things you see. You see things that are going to happen before they’ve happened.”
The first few moments at a fire scene can be uneasy, he said: “You’re not sure who’s coming and how long it’s going to take them to get there.”
But the temptation to pitch in, no matter what’s unfolding, is wrongheaded, he said. “That’s the last thing you want to be doing, because then you’ve lost your situational awareness, and you’ve lost that perspective,” he said. “If all of a sudden you’re grabbing a hose, then you’re not the chief anymore … So it requires a lot of discipline to not do that.”
Transition and camaraderie
When the pandemic ebbs, Schilling hopes to return to playing summer concerts, to bicycling, to spending more quality time with his wife, and in general “being a civilian again” after decades.
“The scanner’s been going in 24/7 for 40 years — looking forward to shutting the scanner off — looking forward to sitting down to a meal and not getting up and leaving my wife at the table,” he said.
Schilling said his wife Julie recently told him, “I’m looking forward to getting back to just the two of us.”
He said she referred to the fire department as the third person in their relationship.
“I can’t park and be blocked in,” he said. “If I go to a movie or a concert, I have to sit in the aisle seat to get out. I mean, it’s always there in your mind. It’s a presence, and I’m looking forward to adjusting to life without that again. And I know that’s going to take some time to do.”
It will be tough for him to watch a fire engine race by. “That I’m sure it will be, because that’s the part that never gets old,” he said. “That’s the part that brought us all through the door originally, was that thrill, that rush.”
Looking out into the bays of the station, Schilling choked up a bit, acknowledging the end of his time with department volunteers and personnel.
Schilling expressed deep regret that the pandemic stole the final months together he expected to have with his department. Safety protocols dictated that they cease their drills, and routine fire station gatherings.
“I’m going to miss the camaraderie of the men and women here,” he said. “It’s a really special group — Sunday mornings when the station’s alive and everybody’s in here — all the buzz and the energy and the positive activity. That’s the part [that’s] been gone for the last four months. It just ended.”
Prior to the merry ambush he got at Veteran’s Park, he did get to see many of them together again one more time a few hundred yards away from the station, when a garage and workshop erupted in flames on June 9.
While the fire itself was a “tough loss” for the owner, Schilling said it was nevertheless “so good to see everybody working together again and accomplishing something.”
Tisbury firefighters snuffed the blaze quickly, preventing it from spreading to nearby structures.
“The mixture of people in the volunteer fire department,” he said, “they come from such diverse backgrounds, personalities, and upbringings, it’s such an eclectic mix of people. And you would never put them all in the same group under any other circumstances. Yet they’re all drawn here to contribute to the quality of life in the community, to give something back, and to be part of something with the history and the tradition that we have. And it’s so special to see all of that come together, and to be part of bringing that all together and making that all work. It’s such a gift that I was given.”
Edgartown Fire Chief Alex Schaeffer, long a friend and colleague of Schilling’s, wished him well in his retirement.
“John and I have shared similar thought processes and pursuits of professional development within our careers,” he wrote. “This led to us working closely within our fire services on the Island, and when collaborating our efforts at statewide forums. I have enjoyed our weekly check-ins, and his counsel through times of frustration. He has led his own department by example, and set a high standard for the rest of us to follow. I look forward to our continued friendship, and hope he can find time for a cup of coffee in Edgartown from time to time.”
In a statement to The Times, State Fire Marshal Peter Ostroskey wrote, “Tisbury Fire Chief John Schilling has been an excellent leader in his department and his community. He demonstrated his commitment to his personnel by being a strong advocate for fire service training. Well-trained firefighters are better able to protect the community in the many different types of emergencies for which they turn to the fire department. John has always led by example, earning him the respect of the Island’s fire service. I wish him all the best in his well-deserved retirement.”
Schilling said while he’s a phone call away, he doesn’t expect to frequent the fire station. “I’ve got to give the new chief his space,” he said.
Family tradition runs strong in the department, he said, noting Leland’s father served there (as did Schilling’s father), and many town families have pledged their service over the years. “At one point in time, there were five brothers on the ladder truck — Maciels,” he said.
Schilling said you just need to look on the walls of the station to see the proud photographs of past chiefs and others in the department.
In a world where much is “fragile” and “fleeting,” being part of the tradition and continuity of the department was meaningful and enduring: “And what better reward can you have than that?”
Chief Schilling signed off just before 5 pm Tuesday afternoon, Chief Leland said, and was given a ride home in the department’s vintage LaFrance pumper.
Updated with an in-depth interview with Schilling.