“I will cry when I walk out the door.”
That was Barbara Thorpe’s first thought when asked about her retirement from the King Fire Department on Aug. 27.
Thorpe, the first person ever hired by the department as a paid employee in 1989, has seen the department grow from an all volunteer force to the city institution it is today. During that time she has served under many fire chiefs, some volunteer and some paid, and has seen several generations of firemen grow up in the department.
“I started off just part time, working from nine in the morning until one in the afternoon,” she said. Thorpe served as the department secretary. “I served through eight fire chiefs because they were elected by the board yearly when we were all volunteer. Then in November of 1995 they hired the first full time fire chief, Craig Haigh.”
Thorpe said the job, and the department, has changed tremendously over the years.
“When I started, there was just a desk and I did everything,” she remembered. “There were no personnel files. I had to start from scratch and build it all. It went from nothing being established to me coming in and creating the entire system.
“When I first started I did not even have a computer,” she added. “It was all on a typewriter, and I did all of the books by hand. When we got the first computer I was able to do everything on Quickbooks, but it was a big learning curve. It was a big step for me. Then we got copiers and the postage machine was a big thing because then we did not have to go to the post office. I can’t imagine having to do it the old way again.”
In 1996 the department added its first paid firefighter, Keith Handy, followed by its first class of six firefighters in 1998.
“Seeing that first class come through was a big step for the fire department,” said Thorpe. “We had a total of four classes come through and then we have hired more since then, but the process of how they were hired has changed.”
The next big milestone Thorpe witnessed was the conversion of the department from an independent department to a municipal department in 2000.
“That was a really big thing,” said Thorpe. “There was so much paperwork involved. We had to do an inventory of the whole fire department and we compiled a notebook that had to be over a foot thick.”
But the transition to a municipal department helped ease a lot of the workload for both Thorpe and the members of the fire department.
“Prior to the city taking over I did all of the payroll, all of the accounts payable, all of the accounts receivable,” said Thorpe. “That all went out the door when the city took over. But the main thing was it really helped us with funding. We no longer had to go fight for the money, the city took care of that. When we were volunteer, we got funding from Stokes County, the City of King and Forsyth County. We still get funding from them, but the city handles all of that now. That took a lot off of the fire chief.”
Thorpe retired from the department in 2002 when her mother passed away, but was asked by Chief Steven Roberson to come back again in 2010.
“I could not ask for a better fire chief and assistant chief,” said Thorpe. “They make it enjoyable to come to work.”
Thorpe has a justifiable tone of pride in her voice when talking about Roberson and many of the other firefighters in the department.
“I met Steven when he was seven or eight years old, and now he is my boss,” she said. Thorpe’s two sons, Mark and Matthew, both grew up serving in the department, and she has served as a mother figure for many of those who have passed through the department’s halls. “They all went though our junior program and then eventually became full-time firemen. I have seen quite a few come through and grow up here.”
Stokes County Fire Marshal Brian Booe, a member of the department’s first class, said Thorpe has served as the center of the department for many years.
“If you need to know something, you go to Barbara,” he said. “If you need to find something out, you go to Barbara. If you want somebody to talk to, you come talk to her. If you need somebody to put you in line, she is going to put you in line. She is the mom of the fire department.
“It is a huge loss, but I know with her leaving that she has the set the groundwork for the department for a long time,” he added. “She has treated us like her own family and she just wants us to be successful.”
Thorpe said she and her husband are going to spend her second retirement traveling around the country, but promised she would be stopping back by the department whenever they were in town to check on her other “family.”
“I’ll make sure I bring them goodies,” she said. “This is a wonderful place to work. The last five years here have just been wonderful. The guys here, well it is a family. They look out for each other. That is what we do here. I’ll miss them.”
Nicholas Elmes may be reached at 336-591-8191 or on Twitter @NicholasElmes.