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This Christmas was the first in 40 years that John Jay didn’t spend at the fire station.
The former Cornbelt Fire Chief said that he’d covered all major holidays during the past four decades. It wasn’t a requirement of his job, he said—he just wanted to make sure someone was available to answer the phone, if needed.
Jay, who retired at the beginning of December, is a little reluctant to talk about his 41-year career with Cornbelt Fire Protection District. Not because he doesn’t miss the job—he does—but because he believes strongly that the needs of the group are more important than those of the individual.
In other words, this story is about more than just one man.
“It’s not about John Jay,” he said. “It’s about Cornbelt. It’s about the team.”
Jay, who spent 41 years with the fire department and 31 as chief, dedicated most of his life to Cornbelt. But he didn’t grow up dreaming of a firefighting career.
“The only thing I really wanted to do was farm,” he said. Jay was raised on the edge of Champaign, where he attended school. His father died when he was young, and he and his brother lived with his grandparents. His grandfather worked as a farmhand, but because the family owned no ground of their own, Jay didn’t think that farming was in his future.
But just before his high school graduation, a farm where his grandfather had worked came up for sale, and Jay leapt at the chance. It was the start of a 47-year career in agriculture that continues today, as he helps his son Bill on the family farm.
“It was one of those things where you took advantage of the opportunity, or it wouldn’t come again,” he said.
His firefighting career was another one of those fortuitous opportunities. He’d never considered becoming a firefighter until his brother Gale (known as “Bulldog”) and his friend Delmer Castor—both volunteers at Cornbelt—told him that there was a position available and asked if he’d consider filling it.
Jay said he’d think about it, but took his time deciding. A week later, Castor called to say that the spot had been taken.
The next time Cornbelt had an opening, Jay accepted right away.
At the time, there was no formal training for the volunteers. New firefighters would come to the station on Saturdays, and “the guys would go out and teach us something,” Jay said, remembering the guidance and support provided by the department’s veterans.
“It was a lot closer family then, because there were fewer of us,” he said.
He joked that the role of fire chief was dumped on him, another twist of fate. He was a lieutenant when the chief at the time left suddenly, and the men who outranked him declined the opportunity. So in 1980, Jay found himself at the helm of Cornbelt Fire Protection District.
“I said, ‘I don’t have the experience or the knowledge,’” Jay recalled. But conversations with Ben Epperson, a former Cornbelt firefighter and chief of the fire department at Chanute Air Force Base in Rantoul, convinced him to give the job a try.
He said that he was intimidated at first, but the same support and encouragement that had helped him as a young firefighter made the transition smoother.
The department was a lot smaller in those days, with less equipment and less paperwork. In Jay’s first year, Cornbelt answered 40 calls; last year, personnel responded to over 700.
There’s also more pressure on volunteer firefighters today than there was 30 or 40 years ago, he said. Family and job commitments, coupled with the increased number of emergency calls, make schedules more hectic.
He estimated that his own job was 60 percent administrative, 40 percent active duty. Over the years, the amount of paperwork required of fire departments has increased, something that Jay said is “a little frustrating.”
“It’s not one of my strengths,” he said.
He counts the five babies delivered by Cornbelt personnel during his tenure as some of the brightest spots in his career, as well as the other lives that have been saved thanks to the department’s emergency services. “You need these things once in awhile,” he said. “Those things really, really pick up your spirits.”
The hardest part of being an emergency responder, he said, is coping with the reality of death. “We’ve seen some pretty unbelievable circumstances,” he said, “that I’ll take to my grave.”
That’s why the good times are so important, he added.
“I will never say that we’ve seen it all, but we’ve seen all we want to see,” he said.
He counts Cornbelt’s contract with Arrow Ambulance as one of his proudest achievements in the past few decades.
He has high praise for many of the men he’s worked with over the years, including former Fire Chief Virgil Mahin and Chuck Allen, who formerly served as president of Cornbelt’s Board of Trustees, and whose leadership Jay believes “helped make Cornbelt what it is today.”
Allen praised Jay’s leadership as well.
“He gave his whole life, nearly, to the department,” Allen said, noting Jay’s efforts in securing state and federal grants for equipment and ensuring that personnel received top-notch training. “You just don’t find too many people who care that much about the community.”
In his last year with Cornbelt, Jay slowed down due to health issues. He bounced back from a bout with colon cancer in 1996, but the back surgery he underwent last year put him behind a desk for the remainder of his stint as chief.
He had originally planned to retire in April 2012, but stepped down at the end of November instead. “It’s time, if I’m honest,” he said. “You know it’s time when your family doctor tells you that he’s glad you got that [responsibility] off your shoulders.”
Jay also serves as Mahomet township supervisor and on the Champaign County Board. He’s looking forward to continuing his public service now that he’s retired from Cornbelt, as well as pursuing his hobby of refurbishing vintage tractors.
For now, “I’d like to catch my breath,” he said.
But he misses the camaraderie of Cornbelt, and the opportunity to go to the station every day.
“I’ve done this for 41 years,” he said. “I can’t just turn that faucet off and walk away.”