Gerald "Jerry" Sleater was the owner of a popular Tri-City grocery store 50 years ago when some customers began recruiting him to come work with them.
The Richland man had recently purchased Ray's Grocery from his father and had little time to spare between running the store and his family, which included four children.
However, the customers were firefighters with Benton Fire District 1 and Sleater was always looking for ways to serve his community.
So he decided to join the district in 1964 as a volunteer firefighter.
"They demanded that I come help them," he said. "I wasn't going to say no. That's how it was back then."
Now, more than a half-century later, Sleater has held almost every position within the district and is the longest-tenured member in its 67-year history.
Sleater, 81, ensured he would spend more than 50 years with the district when he edged out E.W. Bill Houchin in November's race for fire district commissioner. He has been a commissioner since 1990 and his new term is for six years.
Sleater and his family are scheduled to gather today to celebrate the 50-year mark.
"It's never been done before," he said. "I am proud. There's never been a precedent for something like this."
Sleater graduated from Kennewick High School in 1950 and managed a handful of Safeways for more than a decade, he said. He first joined the Richland Y station, which was the district's fourth station, and began to learn about fighting fires.
When Sleater first joined, the Richland Y had two firetrucks and only four jackets for firefighters to wear when they were called out, Sleater said.
"There were no (fire) pants or boots," he said. "The first four guys out got to wear the coats and the other guys went in their Levi's."
Sleater worked his way up the ranks in the district and became assistant chief of Station 3 in the 1980s, he said. He even served as acting chief of the station for a period of time in the late '80s
In 1982, Sleater was injured while fighting an elevator fire, he said. A piece of metal Sleater was hanging onto broke free and he fell. A ladder broke his fall, but his leg went through a space between the rungs and badly damaged his knee.
"I was limited in what I could do after that," he said.
Sleater decided to run for commissioner after the injury prevented him from returning to full duty, he said.
He won his first election and helped the district make major strides in the next 23 years, he said. Sleater was instrumental in helping to start a resident fire program, get two fire stations built and pass a recent tax to help fund the district, he said.
Sleater's unique ability to transition from being a firefighter to a fire commissioner has been valuable to the development of the district, said Grant Baynes, the district's chief.
"He has made his time available. He is very dedicated and has the interest of the people in the district at heart," Baynes said. "He didn't come here to achieve something for himself."
Sleater continues to be amazed at the growth of the district, which now has more than 85 firefighters and six stations, he said.
He stays busy by managing properties in the area and helping to take care of his six grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren.
"Things have improved so much," he said. "It's now one big smooth running machine. I am so proud of the district."
-- Tyler Richardson: 582-1556; email@example.com; Twitter: @Ty_richardson