For James Yerks Jr., serving with the Cos Cob Volunteer Fire Department is simply a way of life and has been for the last 70 years. His loyalty and service to the town were recognized last Wednesday when volunteer firefighters from 11 towns in the Fourth Congressional District were honored by Secretary of State Susan Bysiewicz at a Public Service Awards ceremony.

Yerks joined the Cos Cob volunteer department in 1933. “Seventy years is a long time to be a volunteer. Of course, I’m not an active firefighter anymore. I have been treasurer since 1953 and was treasurer from 1942-45. I was a volunteer driver for 25 years. It just got to be part of my life. It’s still part of my life,” he said.

Held on the campus of Western Connecticut State University in Danbury, the ceremony honored the district’s 800 firefighters for their contributions to the safety of their respective communities. Departments from Greenwich, Fairfield, Monroe, Norwalk, Oxford, Redding, Ridgefield, Shelton, Stamford, Trumbull and Wilton were welcomed by Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton and WCSU Dean of Arts and Sciences Dr. Linda Vaden-Goad. Yerks, who will turn 92 in May, gave a short speech at the ceremony.

“They wanted to know how I did it for so long. I told them it had to be born within you,” he said.

‘Inspirational,’ says Bysiewicz

“Listening to Mr. Yerks speak was really inspirational… He’s a remarkable man,” said Bysiewicz, who said she also asked for his secret to such longevity. (He told her a multivitamin keeps him young).

Yerks joined the Cos Cob Volunteer Fire Department during the country’s Depression years. “There wasn’t much to do in Cos Cob at that time. It was a really small community. Joining the volunteer fire department was just one of the things to do.”

But in the years that followed, volunteering became more than simply an activity to help keep him busy and was an outlet for service and a source of friendship.

“Down through the years, I’ve met so many wonderful friends. I had a lot of fun with the guys,” Yerks said. “We had any number of officers who started out volunteering at Cos Cob. Peter Robbins was a volunteer firefighter at Cos Cob and became the chief of police.”

In addition to his many years of volunteer service, Yerks spent much of his professional life in the fuel industry, working mainly with coal, then later with the Petro-leum Heat and Power Co. as an area representative.

Asked if he would recommend joining a volunteer department to others, he emphatically answered, “I sure would.” He then qualified the statement thoughtfully, “But like I told them [the firefighters at the ceremony] it has to be within you. It’s not an easy thing… When you’re a volunteer firefighter, you have to be on call all the time. Sometimes it’s not easy to get out of that nice warm bed. But it’s a great bunch of guys.”

Yerks said one outstanding memory was the collapse of the Mianus River Bridge in 1983. “I owned a scanner and had it on 24 hours a day. That one night, I don’t know what happened but it wasn’t on. I woke up and there were planes flying all over so I turned on the radio and saw what happened. I didn’t feel too happy about that.”

Demonstrating what the department has meant to him, Yerks said, “Even though I wasn’t driving anymore and they didn’t miss me, I would have liked to be there.”

The Public Service Awards were conceived four years ago to recognize and thank individuals in the state who contribute their time and skills to their communities.

“We started them four years ago to honor people who volunteer their time with municipals boards or commissions. This year we did volunteer firefighters by congressional district,” said Bysiewicz. “The reason why we do it is twofold. We want to say thank you to people who volunteer their time to make their communities better places. We also want to encourage more people to volunteer and contribute their time.”

Yerks said he was proud to be among the volunteers recognized at Wednesday’s ceremony. “It was a very nice affair.”

As much as Bysiewicz was in awe of Yerks, he was delighted to be recognized by the Secretary of the State. “It was a great honor,” he said, adding that he’s looking forward to completing his 71st year with the Cos Cob Volunteer Fire Department.

This article originally appeared in the Web Site on Friday, April 02, 2004 – 5:22:27 PM EST