Our family helping yours

Chief Michael Chmielewski, the longest serving fire chief in Colchester Center Volunteer Fire Company (CCVFC) history, has retired.

Chmielewski began his career in fire services as a student volunteer firefighter at St. Michael’s College. After graduating in 1972, Chmielewski joined CCVFC and has now served the town of Colchester as chief for thirty years, and as a firefighter, for over forty years. He was the recipient of the Vermont State Fire Chief of the Year award numerous times and achieved the International Organization for Standardization Class 3 rating for the Town of Colchester.

At a retirement party last weekend, current and former fire chiefs, family and friends, town officials, and fellow firefighters gathered to celebrate Chief Chmielewski’s immense contribution to the citizens of Colchester.

According to almost everyone who spoke at the party, Chief Chmielewski was an advocate for progress in the department and for every firefighter in the county. Many joked about the difficult spelling of his name, one speaker even going so far as to spell it out, eliciting laughs and a round of applause from the room.

Others touched on the chief’s humility and positive attitude. “He doesn’t want to be here tonight. He’s here for us,” said former Chief of Malletts Bay Fire Department (MBFD) Bob Young when he took his turn on stage. “I’m a better person today because of what I’ve learned from him,” Chief Young said in closing. “Thank you very much for your service, I love you like a brother.”

Other speakers noted Chief Chmielewski’s push for progress and change. Colchester Selectboard Chair Jeff Bartley read a resolution in honor of the Chief that touched on Chmielewski’s mentorship of all firefighters, as well as his work with the town Planning and Zoning Department to implement fire building code improvements. Bartley also spoke of his own childhood growing up in the firehouse. “The fire department is a family,” he said. “What you guys do for one another, how you look out for one another—it’s an honor to be here.”

Chiefs of both MBFD and Milton Fire Department discussed how important mutual aid is to Chmielewski. “Colchester Center has been key to our ability to serve the needs of the people,” said Don Turner, Milton Town Manager and former Fire and Rescue Chief. “When I became chief, Mike said, ‘you can do it, we’ll be here to help.’ I always knew I could count on you.” As the CCVFC motto goes: “Our family helping yours.”

Many of the speakers also thanked Chief Chmielewski’s family. Sandy Ladd, former Assistant Chief of CCVFC who will take over duties as Chief, dedicated part of his speech to Chmielewski’s wife, Betty Ann. “You’ve given so much of yourself,” he said. “Without you we would not have had Mike as Chief.” When he presented her with a bouquet of flowers in thanks, the crowd gave a standing ovation.

In between the emotional points, a bit of humor took the spotlight when Ladd said he wish he’d brought a beer up with him to get him through the speech. Five or so minutes later, both Chief Bob Young and Chair Jeff Bartley hustled up to the stage with a beer in hand. “That’s how mutual aid works man,” said Ladd, to laughter from the crowd.

Last but not least, Chief Chmielewski took the stage. “I’ve just got one piece of paper,” he said quietly, to more laughter. The main message of his speech was about the importance of family and taking life on together.

“It didn’t matter what color truck was at the scene,” he said, referring to the partnership between fire departments and history of mutual aid. “That’s what we did, and we did it together.”

He thanked families, wives, and children for “Christmas dinners, all these extra things that keep the family going.”

When he asked every firefighter in the room to stand, few people were left sitting. “This is not about me, it’s about you guys,” said the chief. “You made us who we are today and I couldn’t do it alone.”

Lastly, he thanked his wife Betty Ann for standing by his side for forty-five years.

“It’s been an honor and privilege to be chief for thirty years,” said Chief Chmielewski. “Thank you.”