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AFTER NEARLY 49 YEARS, ORIGINAL CHIEF STILL SPARKS EFFORTS OF WILSON FIRE TEAM

Life in the Town of Wilson was quite different a half century ago -- fewer cars and people, more farmland and no town fire company.

Then, in 1952, a pumper truck was purchased for $8,500, Merritt H. Thilk was named chief, and the South Wilson Fire Hall was established.

Now, nearly 49 years after its inception, one thing remains the same -- Thilk still runs the show.

At 79, Thilk is slim and energetic, not at all slowed by a gait that reveals a disability resulting from being shot down during World War II in Italy, where he served as a radio operator on a bomber.

He still works daily at MH Thilk Electric, the electrical business he has run for 50 years.

Son John rides shotgun, both in the electrical business and at the fire hall, where he has been assistant chief for the past two years. But make no mistake,: The senior Thilk remains in charge of for both. John Thilk laughs when he notes that the business' name does not include the words "and sons."

Finding anyone in the town who doesn't know Thilk would be difficult. Virtually everyone has had contact with him at the fire hall or in his business. He acknowledges this by nodding and giving a friendly wave to everyone he passes in his familiar green truck.

But if he is not on the road, he is at what his wife, Marion, known as Maggie, call his "second home" -- the South Wilson Fire Hall.

Thilk is reluctant to talk about himself, but he beams like a proud papa when he shows off "his" fire hall.

He winks and grins rather sheepishly at his penchant for neatness: "I know they call me Mr. Clean, but I was in the Army during World War II, and that's the way we run things."

Around the fire hall, his military ways have earned him a nickname: "Sarge."

Wall-to-wall stainless steel gleams throughout the kitchen. Counter tops are spotless in every room. Trucks shine, and floors are spotless. Thilk's latest project, made possible by a $25,000 donation from the company's ladies auxiliary, is a room-sized generator.

"We don't owe anyone; we do things ourselves," he said. "Johnny and I just put in the new generator, and the guys pulled wire for it."

Fund-raising has enabled such things as updating the kitchen and buying trucks. as well as purchasing the latest in firefighting technology, such as a $23,000 imaging camera that lets firefighters use a screen inside the truck to see hot spots in a fire.

Thilk has made the fire company the center of his life. His wife has been a member of the very active ladies auxiliary for 45 years, and son John says that he grew up at the fire company. His children are doing the same.

John Thilk's sons, who are in kindergarten and second grade, sometimes can be found gleefully shoveling a little snow in front of the big firehouse doors.

Merritt Thilk, whose family owned orchards on Chestnut Road across from what would be the future fire hall, graduated from Wilson Central School in 1941. The orchards are gone, but he and his son own homes next door to each other, across Chestnut Road from the fire hall.

Thilk said the site of the fire hall was selected simply by putting an X on the map for a central location.

"It's an everyday job," he said. "I go over a couple of times a day to check the heat and make sure the hoses don't freeze up at night. I'm proud of the building and our accomplishments. But it's not a (single) family affair. There's a whole community involved, and everyone gets the credit. It's not me that done it all."

James Schotz, who was with Thilk at the fire company's beginnings and served as assistant chief for 25 years, is still an active member. His son, Alexander, is lieutenant. Steven LaRock, a member for 25 years and current department treasurer, has two sons who are active members and a third son who was member until he moved out of town. The list of fathers and sons continue.

"I don't care where you go, you won't see a more impressive fire hall," James Schotz said. "Everything is neat, clean and impressive. That's the kind of guy (Thilk) is. He has dedicated himself to the South Wilson Fire Hall. It's his life."

"His energy, enthusiasm and knowledge are phenomenal," LaRock said. "His leadership comes naturally. Nearly 50 years is an incredible commitment. You never know when you are going to be called (to fight a fire.) It is immediate and awesome and Sarge is there to direct the crew."

The community also stands strong behind its fire hall too. Beginning March 4, brunch will be served from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. every Sunday prior to Easter Sunday. Firefighters, their families and members of the auxiliary, as well as members of the community make the event successful. With little advertising, the event has served 800 to 1,000 people each Sunday and raised up to $10,000 each weekend to continue operations at the fire hall.

John Thilk said his father has missed only one brunch since they started 15 years ago, and one Thursday night drill meeting in 48 years, both occasions when he was hospitalized.

"He spent a large amount of his life there, but he always enjoys it," the younger Thilk said. "He was there (at the fire hall) long before I was born. I grew up there, and now my children are part of it. And it will be there long after both of us are gone."

Wilson Supervisor Jerry Dean, a former volunteer firefighter himself, calls Thilk "the greatest man around."

"He has a beautiful department and a fire hall that looks like the day it was built," Dean said. "He put everything together. He also runs a safe department where men are trained and trained right."

Don Kerwin, former chief of the Wilson Fire Company 1 in the Village of Wilson and father of the current village chief, has been a longtime friend of Merritt Thilk's.

"(Merritt's policy) has always been -- if you can't shine it -- paint it. But they would be nothing without him. He's dedicated, that's for darn sure," Kerwin said.

They often vacation together with their families. Despite some friendly rivalries between the Rebels of the South Wilson Fire Hall and the Yankees of the village company, the crews now work together in mutual cooperation because of the lack of volunteers.

"When it comes to volunteering, you gotta want to do it," Thilk said. "People live different today. Back then, there was no TV or fishing boats. In the past, we had 50 to 60 volunteers, and now we are lucky to have 35."

Former Wilson Supervisor Marilynn R. Allgeier, the first great-grandmother to be elected a town supervisor in Western New York, said she frequently asked Merritt when he was planning to retire.

"He always said he was too old to retire," Allgeier laughed. "But I think if you keep doing something you love, it keeps you young."

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