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70 years with the Shelter Island Fire Department

JULIE LANE PHOTO Bill Dickerson, with his certificate from the Firemen's Association of New York honoring him for his decades of service to Shelter Island.
JULIE LANE PHOTO Bill Dickerson, with his certificate from the Firemen’s Association of the State of New York honoring him for his decades of service to Shelter Island.

At 95, Bill Dickerson remembers the good times and the hard times.

He persevered through the latter, and for his dedication to his fellow Isalnders, has been honored by the Firemen’s Association of the State of New York for 70 years of service as a volunteer firefighter.

At the urging of an uncle, Mr. Dickerson joined the Fire Department in 1938. In those days, he remembered, firefighters learned their skills on the job with none of the formal training that’s required of department members today.

“The alarm went off and you just ran,” he said. “We just did what we had to do.”

Mr. Dickerson is the last living firefighter to have responded to the Prospect Hotel fire that occurred in the early morning of June 26, 1942. “That thing was really starting to blaze,” Mr. Dickerson said remembering when he and other volunteers arrived at the scene. The flames were so hot firefighters ripped doors off the building to use as protection from the heat as they worked to douse the blaze.

What people don’t realize, Mr. Dickerson said, is how dangerous a large fire can be to property miles from the site, Parts of the hotel roof were found in his father’s boat off the southern part of the Island, miles from the fire’s site.

He also remembers later in his firefighting career battling a blaze at Mashomack Preserve’s Manor House where the fire started in the kitchen. All the wiring in the building had to be replaced, and since Mr. Dickerson by then was an electrical contractor, the job fell to him to install new wiring since the original wires had been ruined by fire and water.

His father had started Dickerson Electric in the 1930s. It was a natural career path for Bill Jr. when he returned from World War II. He’s a veteran of the Battle of the Bulge, the last major German offensive on the Western Front. Fought in freezing temperatures and, at times, blinding snow in the Ardennes Forest, the battle resulted in 75,000 casualties for American forces.

With pride, he showed certificates of commendation issued by the French and United States governments.

He might have sought a disability pension and not worked, but it wasn’t his style, the veteran said. “I never asked anybody to give me anything,” he added.

Mr. Dickerson studied electrical contracting in New York City when he got home, a difficult time because he had returned from the war wounded and with an almost total hearing loss.

What got him through his classes, he said, was the firm grounding in math he received from Shelter Island School.

In the occasional times he had away from work and firefighting, Mr. Dickerson turned to golf. He and Sid Beckwith, friends to this day, were fierce rivals on the golf course.

Mr. Beckwith, who turned 100 this year, and known as “The Ironman” for his longevity, won a lot of golf games against others, but he couldn’t beat his friend Bill, according to Bob DeStefano, Reporter columnist and former golf professional at Gardiner’s Bay Country Club.

“He couldn’t beat Billy,” Mr. DeStefano said about Mr. Beckwith. “He was his nemesis.”

When his father died in the 1960s, he took over the business that is now run by his son Steven Dickerson and stepson, David McGayhey.

He stopped active firefighting when the hoses were getting too big to handle, he said. But he was still a presence at department meetings until the last few years.

He recalled that if a customer called with an electrical problem in the middle of the night, he would respond just as he did with fire calls. On more than one occasion, he never billed a customer who was having trouble making ends meet.

“I walked out and felt so good because I was helping people,” Mr. Dickerson said.