His first call was within weeks of his 16th birthday.
“I assisted my father in transporting an elderly woman to the hospital,” recalled Wally Wright. “We picked her up in the old red Cadillac. It was one of those cars that they used for both the mortuary and the fire department. You just flipped the sign, depending on what you were doing.
"We drove out to the Elochoman and my father and I picked her up and put her inside. I went to get in the passenger seat and my father told me that I had to ride in the back. ‘What am I supposed to do?’ I asked. My father said, ‘If she has trouble breathing, tap on the window and I’ll drive faster.’ When we got to the hospital, I told my father that I didn’t think I wanted to do that sort of thing again; I wasn’t sure I liked the first aid experience.
“But my Dad said, ‘Get as much experience as possible because someday you may need to use those skills to work on your mother, grandmother, son or daughter.’ My father was right.”
In 49 years as a volunteer for the Cathlamet Fire Department (CFD), Wally Wright has had some tough calls.
“I’ve seen some of my former classmates badly injured--many from driving under the influence. I’ve worked on my son, my daughter, my wife, my mother and father, and both grandmothers. My Grandpa Fabian had heart problems and had to be transported several times. I’ve even had to work on myself.”
Wright, 65, always saw joining CFD as a family tradition. With an uncle as a charter member and two other uncles and several cousins joining in, it felt like a rite of passage for Wally.
“My mother thought it important enough for her husband and brothers to be involved,” said Wright. “That was definitely a motivating factor for me.”
Since then, Wright has attended Cathlamet fire meetings nearly every Thursday for the past 49 years.
“I take a lot of pride in seeing main street Cathlamet with all of the buildings still intact. It’s an old town and we have not lost buildings to fire emergencies,” said Wright.
“And there have been medical emergencies,” he continued. “I have been able to be a part of keeping people alive.”
Though there is a way to continue with the fire department after the age of 65, Wright is unsure what the future will hold for him.
“The state doesn’t want to be liable in case an accident occurs on the job,” Wright explained. “I’ll begin collecting my pension for my years of service and I am required to take a minimum of three months leave. After that, if I wanted to re-join, I’m required to take a physical and re-apply to the fire department.”
“For now, the $300 that I’ll get monthly for retirement will be fun money,” Wright said, “but I would like to get involved in helping to get young people trained down the road.”
“After all,” Wright said, “It is the hardest thing you’ll do that you’ll learn to love.”
“It is no fun to watch people die and you see some difficult things but the rewards that you receive when you see someone walking down the street that could have had a funeral, far outweigh any personal sacrifice.”
The greatest thing that Wright will take away from his years with CDF is friendship.
“The people I care most for are people who care for others. Many of them are firemen,” said Wright. This includes his wife of 41 years, Linda, who has faithfully served the community alongside her husband.
“Becoming a firefighter can be selfish,” said the local hardware store owner, “because you might need to help the most important people in your life someday and this is a way to practice for that. You get to get good working on others.”
Though, one is inclined to argue at the selfishness that Wally suggests, he insists that throughout his years with CDF he has gained more than he has given.
He has not kept score, but lives have depended on the service of our local volunteers and so for the time and dedication that Wright has bestowed upon this community, one can only offer a simple ‘thank you’ for a job well done.