One of a kind.
That’s how Walter Thomas was described by friends and family on Nov. 27. as hundreds came out to attend a memorial in his honour. With some help from the RCMP, members of the city’s fire department made their way from the fire station to Our Lady of the Angels Church along 101 Street. Leading the way was a 1929 fire truck, which carried the casket.
Among the firefighters was former Fort Saskatchewan chief James Clark who carried Thomas’ uniform hat. Clark said he grew up with Thomas since he and his father were both Royal Canadian Legion members. He said he remembered going to the Legion hall for the annual Christmas party where he would see Thomas and his wife Alice.
“I knew Walter all the way through,” he said. “More than just the last chief fire when he retired, he was also an absolute dear friend. Walter never had a bad word about anybody.”
Clark described Thomas as being unselfish with his commitment to give back. He said people would have to ask him if he wanted to go home because he would never ask for a ride.
He said current fire Chief Shawn McKerry, the police and the city did an amazing job in honouring Thomas. He added Thomas would have been thrilled to have seen what everyone did for him.
“As Mayor (Gale) Katchur said in the eulogy to Walter he was one of a kind,” he said. “He dedicated 70 years of his life to the fire department and also 70 years of his life to the Legion and to the Catholic church. That just doesn’t happen.”
Thomas officially retired from service this year in May after serving with the Fort Sask Fire Department for 70 years. His record made him the longest serving firefighter not only in the Fort but in Canada. He joined the service back in 1947 and fought fires until 1978 when he became a dispatcher. He eventually took on the role of captain before moving on to become the department’s historian. From 1992 until his retirement, he would archive newspaper clippings and other department records and photos. In 2012, when Thomas was 90 years old, he was recognized for 60 years of service and was dubbed Canada’s longest serving firefighter and received the Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee award. Thomas also set a new precedent by being the first to receive the Queen’s Exemplary Service Medals for his 50th and 60th years of service.
Thomas died on Nov. 20. He was 95 years old.
In 2005, the department established the peer-nominated Walter Thomas Award for members who just ‘do the right thing’. It is considered the most prestigious award hanging in the hallways of the station, which is also named after Thomas.
This year the honour went to Capt. Doug Stein. While Thomas was unable to deliver the award, Stein said he routinely got to meet and chat with the firefighting legend.
“The only bitter-sweet thing was I was not able to shake the man’s hand whose name is on the plaque,” he said. “It is an honour to be associated with that level of commitment and humbled to be associated with that fellow firefighter.”
Chief McKerry said it was a beautiful service for Thomas who had such an impact on the community.
“Today was a fantastic and beautiful tribute to him,” he said. “We are going to be tied to the family for a long time with the Walter Thomas award and the fire station named after him. We will definitely be with them and support them through this time.”
In recognition of Thomas’ years of service, the fire department will be flying and wearing what is known as the Thin Red Line, which is a black flag with a red line through it. The flag will be flown on the back of fire trucks for the next 30 days. Firefighters will also be wearing pins and a black and red band over their hats.