Some 30-odd years ago, Don Garner knew every street in Fulton. He could basically weave his way through the city with his eyes closed.
These days, not so much. Even with his eyes open.
“I probably know three or four streets,” he said with a jovial shake of his head. “I don’t know how many trips I’ve made up the North Road. Hundreds. I’d get lost going up it now.”
Since Garner left town in 1984, much of Fulton has changed. For the Hattiesburg resident, nowhere was the passage of time more blatant than in his old stomping grounds at the Fulton Fire Department.
“I cannot believe the changes in the Fulton Fire Department over 40 years,” he said. “I would never dream that Fulton would have a ladder truck. And they have hazmat suits now. We wouldn’t have known what that was.”
Although his time in Fulton was relatively brief, and he’s been gone long enough now that many likely won’t recall his face, Garner played a pivotal role in the growth of Fulton Fire Department. Hired by the late Fulton Fire Chief Virgil “Doodle” Pate in 1975, Garner was the city’s first paid firefighter. Prior to Garner’s hiring, the department’s firefighters were all volunteers. Before Garner, firefighters would have to leave their homes and drop by the department to pick up the truck before heading out to the scene of a blaze.
“It cut the response time in half to have someone at the truck,” Garner said.
In January 1975, city officials agreed to allow Pate to post volunteer firefighters at the department overnight to respond to calls. But the fire chief still wanted the city to hire a full-time firefighter to stay at the department at night. According to Garner, Pate lobbied hard for that funding. Eventually, he got it.
Garner was fresh out of the U.S. Air Force when he joined Fulton Fire Department. A native of Hattiesburg, Garner met and married a girl from Mooreville. The couple bought a home in Mantachie, and Garner began scouring the area for work. Pate gave it to him.
Garner had no firefighting experience, but Pate seemed to like his military background and knew having a paid firefighter at the department might further cut response time and save lives. Garner earned a salary of $1,000 a month.
At the time, Fulton Fire Department operated with the help of 18 volunteers. They had two trucks. The main truck had a single stage, 500-gallon-per-minute pump mounted on it.
It was definitely a different era, Garner said, with fewer regulations and less structure. If there’s one element of firefighting that’s improved over the years, it’s safety.
“When I was here, it was not uncommon for firemen to ride on the side of the running board of the fire truck,” he said.
Volunteer firefighters would hop onto the side of the truck as it passed by their homes on the way to a fire. It was dangerous and borderline unthinkable in modern times.
Over the next nine years, Garner went from a greenhorn to a veteran. By his own estimate, he responded to thousands of calls. When he left Fulton Fire Department in 1984, he’d reached the rank of captain. Garner returned to his hometown of Hattiesburg, where he joined a local fire department as a rookie, essentially starting his career over from scratch.
Garner spent another three decades firefighting in Hattiesburg. He eventually became Battalion Chief of Training, a position that tasked him with training young firefighters from a 12-county area. He was later made head of the Southeast One Regional Response Team, where his job was mostly administrative. It included overseeing equipment purchases for that aforementioned 12-county area.
“I bought everything from $2 pencils to $1-million mobile command posts,” he said. “That was a big job.”
He held it for six years.
Now 69 and retired, Garner returned to Fulton to attend his old fire chief’s funeral. As such things often are, the homecoming was both sad and joyous. It was a chance to revisit the start of his long career.
“I haven’t been back in Fulton for 35 years,” he said. “It’s grown. I think in every way for the better … It’s wonderful to be back here.”
Although Fulton was Garner’s home for just a short time, it played an integral role in his life, and he in its. Pate, and the people of Fulton, gave Garner a chance at being a firefighter, and he’s been one ever since. When Garner talks about Fulton and its people, his gratitude is palpable.
“This is where I got my start,” he said, grinning as he motioned toward the streets of downtown Fulton. “And, if I might brag on myself, I did really well.”
His belated return wasn’t just about saying goodbye to an old friend. It was about saying thank you to many old friends.
“I wanted to thank [the people of Fulton] for giving me my start,” he said. “They didn’t hire a fireman; they gave a man a career.”