Protect Hopewell Valley: How and why did you decide to volunteer?
Mary Thornton: I was inspired by my mom, who volunteered with the Pennington Ladies’ Auxiliary for 50 years. My father and grandfather served in the department as well. My grandfather helped get the fire company started, and my father was in the fire company about 45 years when he died. And my mom and I. And now my son is in there.
PHV: For anyone not familiar with Auxiliary volunteers’ work, could you describe what you do?
MT: Our main purpose is to help our volunteers.
When they are on scene, I go out at night, or during the day, whenever I’m needed. We take them water, coffee, sandwiches, whatever should be required. We walk around the scene to make sure everyone gets drinks, because they are spread out when you have a fire. I stay around the van, now that I’m older – I don’t go foraging around to find the volunteers, but the other girls do. And they have to report back to me from time to time, so I know that they are safe. We put our lives on the line as well.
We also raise money by having flower sales, and then we give the fire company money to get something they need, or we will buy them something that they need. When I was president of the organization, we kept putting money away when they were putting an addition on the building. And after a few years, we had $8,000 we handed them so they could buy things they needed for the kitchen. We have also bought hose for the trucks and other supplies that they need.
PHV: Why do you stick with the auxiliary?
MT: I just like to be out there and helping people. I try to give back. I love the firefighters, and I love being out with the girls, and seeing people, like when we are selling flowers during our fundraisers.
PHV: Describe your most memorable moment as a volunteer.
MT: The most memorable time was when the Pennington School burned. That particular night, we had the county ladies’ auxiliary meeting in our fire house, so there were 22 ladies’ auxiliaries there. We were living next to the school, and there were often fire alarms for a waste basket fire, or a fire drill. But I looked out the back door of the firehouse, and I saw that fire. My heart was at my shoes. And from that point on, it was three days of working. We were working out of my kitchen for a while, but then the water pressure was not good, so we moved and were working out of the firehouse. It was three days with the fire companies all over this town, and they were cycling in and out of the firehouse so we could feed them – both our guys, and anybody else who was here to help.
It was 35 years ago, and I could hear my father’s words in my head. I heard him saying to me: “If the prep school ever burns, get everything you ever had and get the hell out. They will never save it.” But they did save it! They saved everything but the chapel, which is where the fire started.
PHV: What has surprised you about your volunteer work?
MT: It’s the time that we put in. It’s a lot of work, but I don’t really consider it work. When you’re with girls, laughing and talking, it’s fun. So it’s not work to me.
PHV: Any advice for those interested in becoming a volunteer?
MT: Come and join us! We’re always looking for volunteers. It’s called the ladies’ auxiliary, but it is open to men, and we have three men.
PHV: Your son Dwayne is a volunteer firefighter. Do you have any advice for moms whose children want to get involved?
MT: It’s a good thing. It’s an important community service where they are providing things that a community really needs, and that’s good for building self-esteem. It builds character.