Tom Davidson's retirement party was held in the equipment bay of the Virginia Department of Forestry's Warrenton office.
Nothing fancy. People stood on the concrete. A few speeches, some mementos exchanged and kind words for Davidson, outgoing chief fire warden for Fauquier and Prince William counties and a state firefighter over the course of two decades.
All of it--the economy of words, the earnestness of the two dozen co-workers, friends and family who gathered for the send-off Sept. 30--seemed fitting, since Davidson was being celebrated for his plain-spoken and hard-working ways saving local forestland from flame.
With his Johnny Unitas haircut and powerful build, the 65-year-old Davidson, a resident of Midland, looks to be the essence of competence, which his colleagues agreed he is.
His duties included fire safety education, enforcement of burning laws, maintenance of woodland firefighting equipment and coordination of local fire companies.
"I was kind of a jack-of-all-trades and master of none," he said self-deprecatingly. His friends were considerably more charitable in their reviews.
"He's the type of guy to take the bull by the horns," said John Murphy, a part-time forestry department firefighter who worked for 12 years with Davidson in the trenches, literally, driving a bulldozer along fire lines. "When he wants to get something done, he'll get it done, and get it done right."
Added Dennis R. McCarthy, the department's Fauquier area forester: "You could take any three or four fire technicians in this county and not equal the knowledge of Tom."
Davidson chuckled as he deflected the praise at his retirement party. "I wouldn't have gotten anywhere without these guys," he said, motioning toward a cluster of tan-shirted forestry workers and civilian volunteers who form the backbone of local fire-suppression efforts. "And I wouldn't have gotten anywhere without my wife."
Forestry department officials said Davidson's replacement has not been chosen because candidates are still being sought.
Davidson was born into a farm family in west-central Pennsylvania. After high school, he joined the Army, where he became a cook. After several moves, he eventually was stationed at Vint Hill Farms Station in Fauquier.
While there, he met the woman he would marry. It was a fortunate turn of events, to hear Davidson tell it: "If it hadn't been for my wife, I wouldn't have made it. She's been my sidekick for 44 years"--though he does allow that "she threatened to move her bed up to the firehouse a few times."
Louisa Davidson, 69, said she never got that angry, though she remembers she did spend some anxious nights. When her husband was called to a fire, she would whip up a quick meal, then begin her vigil by the scanner.
"I would sleep with that monitor," she said. "I'd worry about him when he was out on the road. But the Department of Forestry is a good outfit."
Before coming to the department, Davidson and some other men started the Catlett Volunteer Fire Company in 1962. He was working odd jobs at the time and had no experience fighting fires. Six years later, a position for a local forester opened up with the state. The man who hired Davidson, Larry Cabell, said he was the best candidate because of his knack for fixing things and his steady character.
"He seemed like a very good worker, and he was," said Cabell, who also attended Davidson's going-away lunch.
After two years as a forester, Davidson quit to open up a service station, then returned when the job of Prince William fire warden opened up in 1977. When the Fauquier warden retired in 1989, Davidson took over that position, too.
Louisa Davidson had extra reason to worry once their son, Andrew, started going along with his dad to fire scenes. "We both liked being involved in the fire service and the community," said Andrew Davidson, now 43 and a computer systems analyst for Fairfax County.
Davidson said fire crews would marvel at his father's mechanical know-how, which Tom Davidson said came from his Pennsylvania boyhood on the family farm, which he now owns and where he plans to spend much of his retirement. "You had to repair things yourself," he said. "You couldn't be running off to the store any time anything broke."
Murphy said that Davidson was so deliberate and precise at a fire scene that it occasionally made folks nervous.
"He takes his time. Sometimes it seems like too much time to me," Murphy said, laughing. "But I don't recall him ever making a mistake in approaching a fire, in sizing it up, in [deciding] how to make the initial attack."
It's a complicated process, Davidson said, noting that woodland fires are a whole different ballgame than, say, a blaze in a building. "Structure fires, those are out of a box," he said. "When you've got woodland fires, with fire scattered all over the ground, it can do just about anything it wants. Your main job is not to extinguish it, but to control it and make it do what you want."
Davidson said his most daunting challenge came just this April, when a big blaze near Goldvein torched about 250 acres. He was driving a bulldozer, creating a fire line, and worked the scene for more than 24 hours, then patrolled the edges of the fire for days afterward.
His career wasn't all sweat and flame, though. Davidson was also the man wearing the Smokey Bear costume when he and McCarthy visited local elementary schools to teach fire safety.
Bill Vernam, 78, worked alongside Davidson before retiring as county forester in 1985. Vernam said the calling the two men shared has rewards beyond the good feelings generally directed at people in the emergency trades.
"You're not going to get rich at it, but it's something you can take a lot of pride in," he said. "You feel that you're doing something for the land and for future generations."