HAMLET — Following four decades of fire service, Calvin White has a new accolade — the state’s highest — to hang on his wall.
White, former chief of the Hamlet Fire Department who retired in 2021, was awarded the Order of the Long Leaf Pine at Tuesday’s City Council meeting.
The award, bestowed by Gov. Roy Cooper, was presented by Gene McLaurin, chairman of the Economic Development Partnership of N.C., and former state senator and Rockingham mayor.
According to the OLLP website, the award is presumed to have been started by then-Gov. Terry Sanford in 1963.
“He was seeking a way to honor those people who have really made a lasting contribution on our state,” McLaurin said. “And throughout the last 50 years it’s been given to those who have really distinguished themselves by all the different governors of our state.”
Recent Richmond County recipients include Samaritan Colony’s Harold Pearson, former Hamlet Police chief Scott Waters, former East Rockingham fire chief Bill Dennis, former county commissioner and businessman Thad Ussery and Dr. Fred McQueen.
McLaurin read excerpts from three letters of recommendation — “We could have had a lot of letters written…” — nominating White for the prestigious award.
“A true public servant. Chief White models his personal and professional lives around the basic tenets of selfless service, servant leadership, strength and courage. Calvin made a life, not only a career out of helping others. Firefighting was a calling for him … Chief Calvin White committed his life to serving his profession, community and the state of North Carolina.” – Marchell Adams-David, city manager of Raleigh, former city manager of Hamlet
“Chief White has dedicated his entire life to helping others during the worst times of their lives. His commitment to others has made Richmond County safer and a better place to live. He has served as a beacon. Chief White, as a young man, showed up to the fire station on his bicycle, eager to learn. And he went on to become the fire chief with his hard work, his dedication and his will to succeed. He is a Godly man with a lovely family.” – Sheriff Mark Gulledge
“As you may remember, Hamlet had a tragedy to occur on Sept. 3, 1991 that shook our small town to its very foundation. I was mayor at the time and if it had not been for Calvin White by my side to help me struggle through each day afterwards for many weeks, we would not have recovered to the extent that we did. He puts others first. His service, both throughout this tragedy and now, has made a huge positive difference in our community.” – Abbie Covington, former Hamlet mayor, current council member
White teared up while thanking his family, firefighters and city leaders and moving the celebration to the fire department as the council meeting continued.
The trucks were cleared from the engine bays to make room for tables and a spread of steak, chicken and shrimp as a slideshow of photos from White’s career.
LONG, REWARDING CAREER
White was 17 years old and still in high school when he first started “hanging out” at the Hamlet Fire Department — “a young person wanting something totally different to do than just go to a mill and work.”
“Not knocking mill workers, it just wasn’t something I wanted to do,” White said. “So I said, ‘I’m going to try this firefighter thing.’”
White was hired in the mid-’70s, at the age of 18, by then-Chief Charlie Utter, becoming the first black fireman in the department’s history.
Throughout the years, he worked his way up the ranks from firefighter, to lieutenant, to captain, to assistant chief and finally chief in January of 2016.
As with any firefighter in the early ‘90s, the Imperial Foods fire is the most memorable event in White’s career.
“It’s one of the things I’d love to forget if I could, but unfortunately never can,” White said. “And it’s one of those things that should not be forgotten — ever. You just, as a responder, wish you could step away from it for a little while but, even after this many years, it’s still fresh in my mind … a very horrific Day.”
Click here to read about that fire from the perspective of White and other first responders.
Another memorable incident is the fatal bus crash on U.S. 74 at the N.C. 177 overpass that killed four people in September 2016.
He also recalled a situation where a large man shot himself and set his house on fire in Highland Park and White and another fireman had to drag the man out.
“I could tell you things you wouldn’t believe,” he said about the many calls he responded to over the course of four decades.
White agreed that it takes a special type of person to be able to handle the tragic events first repsonders deal with on a daily basis.
“All these guys are very good at what they do — but at the same time, it wears on you … it really does … You don’t ever get over it, you just get past it,” White said. “You hate to see people hurt, you do your best to save lives.”
White said he was watching the recent football game when Buffalo Bills player Damar Hamlin collapsed on the field.
“I told a friend of mine … ‘You may have just seen your first … football player die on the field,’” White recalled. “And clinically, he was dead … But these guys … are exposed to that on a regular basis … I cannot tell you how many times I’ve done CPR … men, women, children … it happens a lot more than you know about.”
White said it’s a humbling experience.
“As a firefighter, you think you can save everybody,” he said. “And when you can’t, that’s the worst of all.”
The most rewarding thing about his career: people — family, friends, coworkers and the community.
“You meet people, you enjoy people — and it helps,” White said. “If these people weren’t around to help me, there’s no way you’d go as long as I did. It takes more than an individual.”
Even though he’s been retired for more than a year, White joked that his wife has been keeping him very busy.
Chief Trey Goodwin, who donned the chief’s helmet after White’s retirement, started working with his predecessor in 1996.
“There’s a lot of things I could say about Calvin, but one of the things that sticks out that I’ve learned from Calvin is that he was a good fire scene manager,” Goodwin said.
“One thing that a bunch of people here can attest to is, whenever you are going to a fire and somebody gets there, you can usually tell what’s going on by the tone of their voice,” Goodwin continued. “Not with him.
“He was cool, calm and collected — never got bent out of shape, never acted excited. It didn’t matter if it was two or three houses burning or just a trash barrel.”
Goodwin said that’s a trait he’s tried to adopt himself.
Assistant Chief Richard Lassiter, who served in the same position under White, described his friend and former boss as “a man of honor, pride, integrity and good moral character.”
Abbie Covington, who was mayor at the time of the Imperial fire, looked out at all those in the crowd — which included former firefighters and families of prior chiefs — who came to honor White, “ … and I think that’s a tribute to the kind of man you’ve been for us and the kind of man you’ve been for the city of Hamlet.”
She said Utter “saw something special in this young man.”
“A bright and determined young man came through these doors and started a career that has outlasted any former employee of the Hamlet Fire Department,” she said. “And as a young member of this fire department, Calvin availed himself of every opportunity to better himself…”
Covington quoted one unnamed former employee who once said, “I know that I’m a damn good firefighter, but there’s never been anyone to put this uniform on that’s a better man than Calvin White.”
She added that White served as a bridge between the city and the community.
“During a period of very tense and heated racial unrest, it was Calvin — in his usual quiet way — that helped navigate the situation and allowed us to resolve it as peacefully as possible,” Covington recalled. “If you ever needed a leader and a voice of reason, Calvin was it. He was there to unify and to keep things together.”
Covington added that White is “more than worthy” of receiving the OLLP, “as well as the respect that he has acquired and so richly deserved.”
For his retirement, the department presented White with his helmet, a plaque for his years of service and a commemorative rifle. The department also offered a token of thanks to White’s wife, Gwen.
“I can’t thank the people that were here at the fire station when I came here enough for helping me through this process,” White said. “These people showed me through this process … This city that I love, I will always love till the day I die.”