You know the “how it started vs. how it’s going” Internet meme that took social media by storm in 2020? Just imagine the kind of visuals a Roanoke-Wildwood Volunteer Fire Department member like William C. Wilkins, 74, can evoke from memory after 40 years of service to a station that has steadily evolved over the years to keep up with the changing landscape surrounding it.
Wilkins, who was inducted into the department’s Hall of Fame earlier this month during its annual awards ceremony, has witnessed the growth of Roanoke-Wildwood, almost from the very beginning. He joined two years after the station was founded in 1978.
How it started: a single Jeep-like truck that held about 250 gallons of water and no central fire department building.
How it’s going: a sparkling 2018 Freightliner with a 3,500-gallon tanker. And that’s just one of 11 trucks in the department, anchored now in a state-of-the-art building east of Lizard Creek.
“I didn’t ever think I’d see this,” Wilkins said. “... From a doggone 250-gallon truck to 11 trucks. I’ve seen tremendous growth here. It’s unbelievable.”
What makes Wilkins’ induction into the department’s Hall of Fame more remarkable is that he’s still very much an active member of the department, having only recent retired as the safety officer after previously holding the ranks of assistant chief, captain and lieutenant. He’s still driving Tanker 11 to fire scenes and still responding to calls in the middle of the night. In 2020, he logged the third-most number of calls in the station of 30 volunteers.
His inclusion in the Hall of Fame, which was started two years ago by his son, Lorenzo Wilkins, the Roanoke-Wildwood VFD chief, was an obvious choice. The elder Wilkins joined Michael Humphrey as the second inductee.
“It was very special for me,” Lorenzo said of his father’s induction, “because he’s part of the reason I joined the fire service.”
“Being inducted into the all of fame for anything means a lot,” William said, “because everyone doesn’t get that chance.”
The pride is crystal clear on William’s face and voice when he speaks about Lorenzo’s leadership at Roanoke-Wildwood. William believes his crew is the best anywhere, paid or unpaid, and gives much of the credit to his son, who grew up with fond memories around the department with his dad, officially coming on board in 2006.
“It has to be something you like doing,” William said. “And you have to be working with a bunch of guys you don’t mind working with otherwise you wouldn’t do it.”
It also helps to have a supportive wife. That’s Sarah, who probably knows the sound of Roanoke-Wildwood’s pager tone as well as anyone.
When William, a graduate of Gumberry High School in Northampton County, began his Roanoke-Wildwood service, most of the area including where the fire department now sits, was farmland.
Working the night shift at the J.P. Stevens mill in Roanoke Rapids, William would occasionally see the fire truck driving by during the day and figured he was available to help out. He ultimately put in 30 years and six months of work at the mill/textile plant, missing only three days, and helping out the fire department all the while.
“I know my dad wouldn’t trade it for the world because he’s just the type that loves to help people, loves to help the community,” Lorenzo said. “He understands that somebody has to do it and he was willing to step up and do it.”
Because of his dedication, curiosity and close proximity to the fire department, William has seen it all when it comes to emergency calls around these parts, whether they have been Lake Gaston-related or through mutual aid for some of the larger fires Warrenton has endured over the years.
And yes, there have been a couple of calls that scared him.
But responding still comes second nature now despite having been retired from working professionally for more than a decade.
Unlike an athlete in a sports hall of fame, William C. Wilkins is still playing, still putting up numbers.
“You would think that as a person got older, they would lose that passion,” Lorenzo said, “but it seems like it continues to grow with him.
“He is just as active and motivated now as he was back when he first joined.”
Some things never change.
Along with the Hall of Fame induction of Wilkins, three other Roanoke-Wildwood firemen were honored during the banquet.
Dustin Garner was named Firefighter of the Year and Clint Vincent and Ray Jeter each earned the Fire Chief Award.