District 1 Supervisor John Montgomery, left, reads a declaration recognizing Bob Cunningham's service to the county. Cunningham served as a volunteer firefighter for 31 years. Photo by: Alex Holloway/Dispatch Staff
March 22, 2019 10:13:24 AM
They call him Brother Bob.
Bob Cunningham, a longtime volunteer firefighter, captain and chaplain with the Central Oktibbeha County Volunteer Fire Department, turned in his gear in retirement at the beginning of the year.
On Monday, the county board of supervisors recognized him for his long service to the county.
District 1 Supervisor John Montgomery, himself a firefighter with Starkville Fire Department, said Cunningham was a charter member for the Central Oktibbeha department, which was founded in April 1988. Cunningham was also in the first rural fire officers class at the state fire academy in Pearl.
"He's just a great example of what a volunteer fireman is," Montgomery said. "You're looking at it right here. This man has put in many years since 1988 -- over 30 years of his life. When the call comes in at 2 o'clock, he has to go, and you don't know what you're looking at a lot of times. In the county, you see fires that are a lot further along than we do in the city so we appreciate that."
Cunningham, a retired lieutenant colonel and B-52 navigator for the U.S. Air Force, was part of the first group of firefighters with the nascent department in Longview. At the time, he said, the area didn't have anything in the way of fire departments, and home insurance costs, as a result, were high.
He never figured the work would be a long-term deal.
"I figured just a few years and then I'd quit," Cunningham said. "The reason I did quit was because I turned 81 and I figured that an 81-year-old doesn't need to be running into fires."
County Fire Services Coordinator Kirk Rosenhan said the Central Oktibbeha department was one of the county's first. At the time, outside of Starkville, Maben and Sturgis had fire departments, and the East Oktibbeha County Volunteer Fire Department was started around the same time.
The departments were formed at the same time as Rosenhan's fire coordinator position, and the county's fire service has blossomed from there.
"They were in the vanguard of county fire protection and have built quite an operation to serve their rapidly-growing response area," Rosenhan said.
Joe Pennell, the chief for the Central Oktibbeha Volunteer Fire Department, is another one of the department's charter members. He said Cunningham's work has been vital from the very beginning -- even in helping to build the fire station.
Watching the fire department grow from 1988 to today has been "awesome," Cunningham said. The department has grown from having one used truck that seemed to run when it wanted to, rather than when it was needed, to having six vehicles. Its duties have shifted from responding to calls all over Oktibbeha County to a more focused response area in Longview, as more volunteer departments have cropped up across the county.
The Central department's story of growth has been echoed for the county's fire service in general, he said.
"You might say it's been like watching it grow up like a person," Cunningham said. "It was small at first, and now we've got departments all over the county."
Rosenhan referred to the triangle of components -- fuel, oxygen and heat -- necessary to form fires and said he has another triangle -- equipment, training and spirit -- for what's necessary for good fire protection.
"You've got to have the spirit and that's the bottom of the triangle because if you're not interested in what you're doing, you're done," he said. "Bob had that -- he had to have that because he kept showing up at 2 in the morning."
'I miss him already'
As Cunningham grew older, he slowed down and stopped running into fires in favor of serving as a safety officer and chaplain.
Pennell said Cunningham served tremendously in the role, particularly as a mentor for the college students who join the department.
"I miss him already," Pennell said. "It's one thing to run into a fire, but it can be hard not to have tunnel vision. You may have other things going on that maybe aren't as safe as they should be, and Bob was always good at seeing the big picture.
"You just know the man and the character of a guy from his dedication and willingness to put the time in when he could be doing something else," Pennell later added. "You don't find many people like that anymore."
Though he's retired, Cunningham hasn't completely parted from the fire service. He serves on the department's board and has kept his radio to hear calls.
"It still sort of sends you wanting to run," he said. "But my wife said no -- especially at night."
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