Some firefighters never lay down the ax

By Kathy Helms-Hughes
STAR STAFF
khughes@starhq.com

   Firefighting is kind of like the element of fire itself: Once it gets going, it's consuming. People like Smith Davenport -- or "Goat," as he is affectionately known -- who have been fighting fires for decades, usually never see their careers extinguished.
   Now approaching 60 years old, Davenport has served at Hampton/Valley Forge Volunteer Fire Department for more years than most members are old.
   "He'll never get out of the fire department," said Fire Chief Kelly Taylor, comparing Davenport to Clifford Peters, who recently stepped down as chief of Stoney Creek Volunteer Fire Department. "He just kind of stays in the back a little bit."
   During ceremonies this past Christmas, fellow firefighters presented Davenport a bronze ax with hickory-handle to honor his 28 years of meritorious service and outstanding dedication to the fire department. "It has inlays of the Maltese cross, which is the fire service symbol, with the years that he has served, and the (four) years that he has been chief up here," Taylor said.
   Davenport, who also is chief of the fire brigade at Nuclear Fuel Services in Erwin, lost the function of one lung following an injury at work two years ago, his daughter, Angie Davenport, said.
   "That kind of hinders him being on the fire scene because he can't really inhale all of the smoke now. He's still in the fire department, but not as active," she said.
   Taylor said Davenport now acts as an adviser on fire scenes and is invaluable when it comes to public relations "because everybody in Hampton knows him and respects him. "He can still fight fire if he has to, but he prefers to control the scene and make sure we get all of the support we need and do the communications," Taylor said.
   In his job at NFS, Taylor said Davenport mediates multimillion-dollar contracts. "It's pretty interesting to look at him in that aspect. Everybody at work sees him as this great businessman and mediator, but yet, down here at the fire department, he's just 'Goat.' ... He's kind of like our father. He keeps us all in line. In fact, if he could claim us all on his taxes, he would be a rich man."
   Taylor said firefighters get some of the benefit of Nuclear Fuels' training at their department through Davenport. "He's given us an overview of hazardous materials training" and in tactical firefighting, has shown them everything from how to drag a hose the best way so they don't throw their back out, to dousing a fire with just enough water to put it out while minimizing property damage. He also keeps members abreast of legalities and helps write grant proposals.
   "He's actually contributed in the fact that he's got two sons and one daughter in the fire department here. He's kind of kept us going with membership, too. Angie Davenport, his daughter, is our secretary," Taylor said.
   According to Angie, the family fascination with firefighting already is evident in one of Davenport's grandchildren. "He's got twin grandbabies -- a boy and a girl -- and the little boy has to go to the fire department every day and see the 'woo-woos.' He's already starting and he's only two years old."
   Responding to fire calls and medical emergencies are a way of life for the Davenport family, "because my dad's been in it so many years," Angie said. "Before the paging system came along, and they had to call everyone, we've been woke up many times through the night."
   Angie said her youngest brother, Jason, started out as a junior firefighter and went full-time following the Flood of '98 while still in high school. "After the flood, Jason really saw how important it was. From being in the fire department, he is now working in EMS. I feel like the fire department's a big influence on him, because they do run first-responder calls, too."
   Chris, father of the twins, also joined the fire department after the flood. "A lot of the members we have now joined because of the flood," Angie said.
   While not an active firefighter herself, Angie has been with the department eight years, keeping up with the paperwork. She also ran the bingo operation before District Attorney General Joe Crumley declared bingo "fund-raising" efforts illegal.
   Angie said the Flood of 1998 had "about the biggest impact I've ever seen on my dad." One of the children who drowned belonged to the church the Davenports attend.
   "He was there whenever they brought her up out of the water," Angie said. It was one of the few times she could recall seeing her father cry.
   "He cried all the way to work. Well, he got to work and he was crying so bad they made him come home. That made me cry, because I'd never seen my dad cry except for a few occasions," such as the deaths of his parents. "He loves kids, and there are no kids that do not like my dad, I think. He's one of those that kids gather around him."
   Former Johnson City Fire Chief Clarence Eades, now deceased, was a great influence on Davenport, Angie said. "He would come up and train the fire departments, and I've heard my dad say many times, that Chief Eades would teach them stuff they needed to know around here, like how to draft water from a creek if you didn't have a hydrant -- not just the 'big city' stuff, but the 'country' stuff that you need to know. My dad really respected him, and I think he learned a lot from Chief Eades when he was alive."
   Davenport is famous for his Halloween firehouse chili. "Every year, he makes deer chili and makes it as hot as he can. One year, he made it so hot none of the boys could eat it. They'd take one bite, drink a whole drink, take another bite, drink another drink ...," Angie said.
   Davenport helped build the present fire station, where he often entertains younger members with his storytelling ability. "A lot of those boys are just like his sons," Angie said. "I know many a Thanksgiving ... if there was somebody at the fire department that had nowhere to go, they were at my house. My mom would set an extra plate.
   "I guess no matter who's the chief, he's the leader. He's the dad -- not just to me and my siblings, but to everybody," Angie said.