By Gina Salvato Shultis, Director of Development
With a gleam in his eye and his memory sharp as a tack, William A. (Bill) Hills greeted more than 100 of his family and friends who came to the FASNY Firemen’s Home to celebrate his momentous 100th birthday. Among the guests were his fire service brothers and sisters from Long Island, who came by bus to pay tribute to him as the last living founding member of the North Amityville Fire Co.
When asked what it felt like to be turning 100 years old, Bill responded with a smile, “No different than being 99!”
Photo courtesy of Lance Wheeler
Bill’s father-in-law, Oscar Egelund (Badge No. 1) donated the property for the original firehouse on Rosewood Avenue in North Amityville. Bill joined the department in 1940 and helped construct its first fire station. He is still Badge No. 24 and can tell you vivid stories about pounding in the nails to build a firm structure and a strong department.
Ex-Chief Jimmie McGruder, Chairman of the North Amityville Board, said he looks forward to his visits to the Firemen’s Home to see Bill. “We could always go to him and ask about the history to help us make decisions as to where we are and where we want to go in the future,” he said.
North Amityville’s current Chief Aaron Collins presented Bill with Citations of Honor from Governor Andrew M. Cuomo and Congressman Peter T. King, along with gifts from the fire company. Ex-Chief Walter Singer congratulated Bill on behalf of the Town of Babylon Chiefs Association.
FASNY Immediate Past President Robert N. McConville and Trustees Gerard Owenburg and Frederick J. Griffiths presented Bill with a Centenarian Certificate from the Home as well as a framed birthday card. He also received a birthday certificate from the White House signed by former President Barack Obama.
Although the awards and accolades of the day reflected fondly on Bill’s 77 years of service (both to the fire service and in World War II), his legacy includes a rich piece of history that began on the Hudson River, not far from the Firemen’s Home where he now resides.
Born on the barge “Westfield” on January 19, 1917, Bill spent his first 20 years of life on boats traveling the East River, New York Harbor, Hudson River and the Barge Canal. He recalls this as a very happy time in his life and even remembers the Great Depression years fondly. For, although a barge cabin is tiny, it is efficient – always warm in the winter and cool in the summer (they hauled coal and ice), as Bill still recalls.
At age 19, Bill took charge of his own barge, the “Rifton.” At the time, he kept a meticulous log, but he had no way of knowing he would ultimately record the events of the historic barge canal freeze during the winter of 1936-37. This would be his last year on the boats, but in 1994, he would recall these details again during an interview with Craig Williams, former Senior Historian for the New York Museum, who also attended Bill’s 100th birthday party.
In 1940, Bill married Genevieve Egelund and they had four children, who were all present at his party.
There are far more interesting things to write about Bill’s life than space in this article will permit, so I will close with these few. After being honorably discharged from the U.S. Army in 1946, Bill started his own business applying gold lettering scroll designs and pictorials to fire apparatus. He played guitar up until a few years ago, has visited all 50 states, and his driver’s license is still valid until 2018.
William A. Hills: a true fireman, craftsman, patriot, family man and celebrated resident of the Firemen’s Home!