Heaven just gained a Fire Chief

First published in the January 21st, 1997 issue of the Ladysmith-Chemainus Chronicle.

Ladysmith just lost another native son last week when former fire chief Bill Grouhel was felled by a massive heart attack.

He was solid pioneer stock, a quiet man, a respected man, a man who for 40 years put the safety of his friends and neighbors ahead of his own comfort.

Bill Grouhel turned 75 last month and his birthday was marked just the way he wanted it, with his family. Family was important to him. He used to say he was lucky to be with family, given the heart problems he and family members had seen.

Bill survived open heart surgery but he lost his brother Joe, his beloved wife Edie and his only son, Wayne. Wayne’s sudden death, while still in his 30’s, was devastating because no one suspected the popular Kinsmen member had a failing heart.

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Bill Grouhel (Back row 4th from left) in front of Old Fire Hall on Roberts Street

Bill joined the volunteer fire department right after the war, in 1946. At the same time, three of his old buddies, Keith Gourlay, Fred Wilson and Ralph Dalby, also volunteered. The three of them were among firemen with 25 or more years of service honored by the town last year where they were dubbed the last of the “bucket brigade.” Bill didn’t attend that party because he could no longer tolerate cigarette smoke.

“We didn’t exactly have a bucket brigade,” Keith Gourlay was saying the other day, “but it seems so long ago that we might have.”

Wilson said in 1946 the 14-man department and chief had just taken delivery of a new war assets fire truck and it was their pride and joy. The 1936 International is the old fire truck you see today in Ladysmith parades.

Gourlay says Bill was a quiet fire chief. So does Ralph Dalby.

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Fire Chief Bill Gourlay – 40 years of service with Ladysmith Fire Department

“He was pretty serious about it all,” recalls Dalby, “he was a No. 1 fire chief. He always backed his men and he had a way of making you feel good about yourself.”

As chief, Bill followed in his father’s footsteps for Joe Sr. had also been chief of this department.

Bill went on to run up 40 years of service with the department, retiring in 1986 after serving the last 13 years as paid chief.

And there-in lies a story:

Bill had been in the undertaking business here. He first worked for Herbie Clayton, who owned the funeral home, then he bought the business. It was located where the hospital auxiliary’s Thrift Shop is today.

Eventually, he sold the business to Sands but he became bored in his early retirement so he made his old friend and former fire chief, and at that time mayor, Frank Jameson, an offer he and council couldn’t refuse: He said he would work fulltime as fire chief, including inspections, for something like $18,000 a year. It was a token sum for this service and council grabbed it. Bill stayed on until 1986 when he retired for good.

In the early 70s, Bill used to slip in the back door of the Chronicle most every Tuesday night during his mid-evening walk. We were in the old building at Second and Roberts in those days and he knew we would be there putting the last touches on the next day’s paper. Bill said we needed a break, so he would draw from a briefcase he carried , a small jar of John Barleycorn, pouring for each of us, but declining himself. During the conversation that went with the spiked coffee, we often learned more about the funeral business than we wanted to know.

Keith Gourlay has a story to tell about Bill:

“Jimmy Davidson, Bill and I went to Cumberland to do some hunting. This was in the late 1940s. We made a trip from Cumberland back to the highway, for a reason I have since forgotten, and Bill, who was driving Edie’s car, mistook a road and we bumped our way over the railroad tracks instead.

“We hit so hard we buckled a rim, Jimmy’s rifle flew in the air and Bill hit his head on the roof, yet he had the presence of mind not to hit the brakes while the car was in the air or we would have been in real trouble. We have laughed about that incident since but at the time we didn’t think it was funny.

“There was a lot of companionship in the department at that time and hunting was only one of the things we did together.”

Fifty years have since gone by and the last of the “bucket brigade” say dates have become fuzzy. None can tell you exactly when Bill Grouhel became fire chief, but to the man they remember him as a good fire chief.

You can’t get better praise than that from you old buddies, can you?

So if Heaven has a fire department it’s a cinch that the angels have already elected Bill chief.

It seems only fitting.

Contributed by: Rollie Rose

Images added by LDHS from their files.

Edie passed away on November 3, 1993 and Bill would follow her on January 15, 1997. Both are buried in Ladysmith Cemetery.