Finishing on top

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It was a telling scene on the night of June 29. Tisbury Fire Chief John Schilling, working his last day on the job, got a call on his pager for an illegal fire at Veterans Memorial Park. He jumped into his white pickup truck and headed for the park, where dozens of firefighters and other first responders were there to congratulate Schilling on his retirement.

Schilling retired, effective June 30, with the respect and appreciation of Tisbury and the entire Island community. That’s no small feat for a man who has been involved in public service for more than 40 years on the Island.

And it’s not because he sat in the back of the room and kept quiet.

When necessary, Schilling was willing to speak out, set the record straight, and ultimately do his job protecting the public. On many occasions, it would be Schilling at a select board meeting filling in the blanks on a situation — sometimes not even involving his own department. He seemed to know everything and everybody, and provided a voice of reason.

It’s the type of institutional knowledge that’s difficult to replace.

Just recently, Schilling urged the select board to hit the pause button on approving a common victualer’s license for Vineyard Grocer. He told the board there were still some outstanding issues with the inspection of the building’s alarm system. More than a month later, those issues were still lingering, on the same night the board was congratulating Schilling on his final “official” appearance as fire chief via Zoom. 

At a meeting in February — pre-pandemic — he implored the town to put more money into its emergency planning, which hasn’t been updated in 24 years. 

They are examples of his straightforward approach.

When Tisbury School needed a place to feed schoolchildren because its cafeteria was off-limits due to concerns about high levels of lead, Schilling welcomed children into the meeting room in the basement of the Emergency Services Facility, which has a kitchen, across the street from the school.

But what sets Schilling apart, as well, is that he could make his point with grace and often in good humor.

Schilling has served the community in other ways. His wife, Julie, is the conductor of the Vineyard Haven Town Band, and Schilling has played the trumpet in the band for more than 50 years. At ceremonies, like the town’s Memorial Day observances, he is typically there playing “Taps.”

Schilling has also demonstrated a deep understanding of the Island’s history, as well as the history of his own department. He was giddy as he told select board members about a deal to bring the 1947 LaFrance pumper back to Tisbury from off-Island, where it had been sold in 1978 as surplus equipment.

Schilling isn’t responsible for making the deal — that was the work of Nicky Fullin and David Welch and the firefighters association — but he reminded the community about the rich history behind the Legion Pumper and its crew. The unit of Legionnaires was first established after World War I. Several men returned to Tisbury after serving in the war, and established the American Legion Pumper crew, a firefighting unit to complement the town fire department and allow them to continue to serve their country.

Fast-forward to the end of World War II, when another group of men returned from war and continued the tradition. They bought a 1947 LaFrance Pumper, a state-of-the-art fire truck for its time, and the third truck purchased for firefighting by veterans.

In turning over the keys to the Emergency Services Facility to Greg Leland, Schilling once again showed a deep respect and appreciation for history and tradition — noting his replacement’s deep roots in firefighting, with both his father and grandfather involved in the fire service.

It’s cliché to say that someone has big shoes to fill. In this case, it’s a formidable set of firefighter boots.