LAKEWOOD – Jack Knowlton didn’t have to look far for inspiration when he decided to join the fire department more than 50 years ago.
All he had to do was look up to his father.
“My dad was active in the department up to the day he died. I grew up here,” said Knowlton, current president of the Lakewood Volunteer Fire Department and past chief.
Knowlton’s father, Herman, logged more than 5,600 emergency responses spanning 58 years as a Lakewood firefighter. Herman died of cancer in 2001.
Knowlton, who joined the department in 1962, has 51 years of fire service himself. In fact, when the Jamestown native joined there were two fire departments covering Lakewood: the Lakewood Hose Co. and the Lakewood Chemical Co. Knowlton, 72, was the last president of the Lakewood Hose Co. in 1964 before the two departments merged to form the present-day fire department.
Plenty has changed in the last five decades.
“Technology is just unbelievable,” Knowlton said. “All the trucks are now computerized; the pumps are computerized, and you can pre-set everything. Years ago it was all mechanical.”
The number of emergencies has increased as well, from 100-200 calls a year when he joined to 700-800 calls on average now. “I still run a few hundred now,” he said.
Opting to stay in Lakewood for his professional career, Knowlton worked at the local post office for 30 years.
For a side job he currently works at cemeteries in North Harmony and Busti, mowing lawns and maintaining the properties.
“It’s very quiet. I don’t get a whole lot of complaints when I’m out there.,” he joked of the side job. “Between that and the fire department it keeps me busy and active.”
Asked of a response that stands out during his tenure, Knowlton recalls rescuing a 6-month-old boy from a burning building in 1973.
Knowlton remembers entering the second-floor Chautauqua Avenue apartment, where three children were left unattended while their parents were out of the house.
One of the children was playing with matches and ignited the apartment, which was ablaze by the time Lakewood first responders arrived.
“My brother was there and got the two older kids off the stairway,” Knowlton said. “Myself and another firefighter went inside. He went off into the bedroom and I went into the living room and found the little guy in a jumper seat.”
“We were just crawling around kind of searching, and actually the whole living room just lit up and that’s how I spotted him,” he said. “Everyone ended up being fine. … It was one of the more rewarding calls.”
Knowlton received the Mayor’s Award for his heroics.
In March, New York state Sen. Cathy Young, R-C-I Olean, recognized Knowlton’s 50 years of service with a Senate proclamation, which noted his time on the county Fire Advisory Board and Fire Chiefs Association.
Locally, Knowlton has had three stints as Lakewood fire chief, the last ending in 2006. He said finding volunteer firefighters has proven most difficult during his time at the fire department.
“Right now I think every department is struggling with membership,” he said. “People just don’t have the spare time, and the requirements to become a firefighter have increased with all the schools and training.
“I think the economy is a big reason people don’t belong. They can’t afford to use up their spare time volunteering.”
Knowlton said there are more than 50 active members in the Lakewood Fire Department. He plans to remain one of them for the foreseeable future.
“I don’t plan to slow down,” he said.
This story is part of a continuing series on first responders. To nominate someone, contact Eric Tichy at 487-1111 at ext. 251, or email email@example.com.