In the 65 years Fred Ogar served Shelter Island, as a volunteer with the Fire Department, a chief and commissioner, the most grueling duty he had wasn’t facing flames and smoke, but an encounter on a summer day in the mid-1960s.
As chief, he had led other firefighters that day responding to a house fire in West Neck.
A couple and their 19-year-old daughter, who Mr. Ogar knew, and remembers as having a developmental disability, were leaving the house when the daughter “broke away and ran back into her room” he recalled. Before she could be rescued, she had pulled a mattress over her. “She wasn’t burned, but died of asphyxiation,” he said. “As chief, I went across the street and told the parents,” Mr. Ogar said. He paused, and added, in a quiet tone, “It was upsetting.”
There was nothing more to say.
He recently sent in his letter of resignation to the department he loved, helped shape and always influenced since he joined in 1955 at age 20. Earl Reiter, current department chief, said Mr. Ogar is an inspiration to all firefighters and to anyone who knows him.
Service from the start
After graduating from Shelter Island High School, he went to work at the Saltaire Nursery, which later became The Shelter Island Nursery. His buddy, Kenny Capon, “worked on me for a year and half to join the Fire Department,” he remembered.
But young Freddy (called that by anyone who knows him) had an idea of going away to college and didn’t want to join the department and then have to quit. “But then I decided to join the service, and if you volunteered for the Fire Department, you got credit if you went into the military,” he said.
After two years of Army duty, he was home and answering the fire whistle every time it sounded.
A rivalry becomes a partnership
There were two Fire Departments on the Island, one in the Heights and one in the Center, until they merged in 1998. Fire Commissioner Larry Lechmanski remembers that, “I was a Heights guy and Freddy was a Center guy. There was an intense rivalry then between the two departments that had to be worked out.”
The rivalry ceased when he and Mr. Ogar began to work together on one of the most difficult and important aspects of firefighting on Shelter island. They became bound working on a truck, known as “number 1017, the main truck you operate to seek water,” Mr. Lechmanski said. Except for Dering Harbor and the Heights, there are no fire hydrants on the Island, so in emergencies, most water has to be drawn from the creeks and bays.
“I was the captain, and Freddy became the lieutenant on the truck,” Mr. Lechmanski said. “We never had any problems when we were working. As soon as the whistle sounded, and we got together, we began figuring out the best places to get water. The rivalry had to be suppressed for the good of Shelter Island and that’s what Freddy and I did. I think we probably had the best officer-to-officer relationship in the whole department.”
Another time, same place
Since joining the department in a distant era when Dwight Eisenhower was president, a new car cost about $1,600, a nice house about $10,000, and a dozen eggs was 60 cents, Mr. Ogar said the greatest change he experienced was training volunteers. “Training then and training now. No comparison,” he said.
Training is now mandated and managed by the county, which runs classes and sessions at the Suffolk County Fire Academy in Yaphank.
And it’s not just a one-shot deal, but training is an ongoing requirement for all firefighters, at the county facility.
“The first year we had formal training by the county was when I was chief in 1964,” Mr. Ogar said. “Before that, it was on-the-job-training.”
More than just skills
Leadership is not easily defined, he said, adding, “You either have it or you don’t.”
In his first year as chief he had a group of firefighters younger than him, which made it easier to lead. “But there was also group of older men who resented me at first,” he said. “But we worked together, and eventually got along with each other.”
Mr. Ogar brought more than leadership, experience and a cool head in emergencies, but a commitment he felt to the wider Shelter Island community. In the early autumn of 1966, he announced the Center Firehouse would host a Halloween celebration for children. Plans called for a parade of costumed children to be followed by games and contests. The department staged the event in appreciation of support the community gave during the fund-raising drive that had been conducted that summer. Since then, the annual Halloween Parade is one of the most joyful events on the Island, with Islanders marching from Wilson Circle to the firehouse and back, and more cheering them along the way.
Another way to serve
As a firefighter and a chief, he thought he had done difficult work, but was surprised when he became a member of the Shelter Island Board of Fire Commissioners and served for more than 30 years.
“In some ways it’s a harder job,” Mr. Ogar said. “You have to keep your eye on three things. Be careful of the money for the Fire District. Keep up morale. And get the support and equipment needed.”
Larry Lechmanski summed up what many feel about Mr. Ogar’s life: “He’s always looked out for what’s best for Shelter Island.”