Bell tolls for Lt. Don CoyPublished 10:04am Friday, January 8, 2010
By JOHN EBY
Dowagiac Daily News
A firefighting family farewell filled Yazel and Clark Chapel Thursday morning as Donald M. Coy Sr.’s colleagues saluted his 33-year career as a Dowagiac firefighter.
Lt. Coy retired in 1998, then returned in 2007 as a volunteer.
Lt. Coy, born Oct. 26, 1942, in Three Rivers, was 67 when he died on New Year’s Day.
The funeral home where Mr. Coy worked part-time when it was McLauchlin-Clark was packed to a capacity, ironically, of which no fire marshal would approve.
But it proved the depth of affection for a man who touched many more lives than most, not only venturing into blazing buildings, but as a Cass County Parks Board member and Boy Scout commissioner who loved fall deer hunting and summer fishing trips.
“I thank all of you who engage in public service and public safety for all that you do,” Funeral Director Brad Yazel said. “We want to thank all of you for being here to pay your final respects to Donald Coy. As I shared with Jeanette earlier, the greatest tribute I think we ever see at the funeral home is when we’ve got people who have to sit up the stairs to my house.
“They’re jammed in the other room, in the hallway, in the conference room and every place else in this building we could find a chair for somebody. We completely filled the house.”
His residence on N. Front Street in the heart of the city symbolized Don’s commitment to his community.
Lt. Coy was eulogized as a family man and loyal friend who considered himself his brother’s keeper.
He experienced God in nature and was so known for consuming cherry Pepsi that a bottle was tucked in his casket.
More than 30 firefighters from across the area – including Cassopolis, Wayne Township, Howard Township, Pokagon Township and Indian Lake – lined the sidewalk to Center Street to salute as Dowagiac Fire Department pallbearers placed his coffin in the hearse for a long procession behind a black-draped firetruck to Riverside Cemetery.
Police closed Hill Street to accommodate a large American flag fluttering from atop a ladder truck.
Lt. Coy served in the U.S. Army from 1958 until 1961.
Fellowship followed at the Conservation Club.
Mark Barnes, who grew up in Dowagiac in a family of firefighters, conducted a last bell ceremony.
“Dowagiac had this system long before there were telephones and, clearly, two-way radios,” Barnes explained.
“Citizens called the Fire Department by walking up to prominent street corners and pulling the alarm. It was a closed-circuit system. That box on the corner had an individual specific number, typically three digits in Dowagiac, that rang the bell in the fire station. The boxes were on telephone poles.”
All responding firemen knew was which intersection.
“It could be a house fire, a medical event or a cat in the tree,” Barnes said.
Officers at the intersection could open alarm boxes and use the signal to notify headquarters and call for additional manpower.
“They tapped it out like Morse code,” Barnes said.
“Or, it might mean ‘everything’s okay here.’ In the past, it was the bell that signaled the beginning of a fireman’s tour of duty. Day and night, each alarm was sounded by a bell which summoned those brave souls who placed their lives in jeopardy for the good of their fellow citizens. When the fire was out, and the alarm came to an end, a bell signaled to all the completion of that call. When a firefighter perished in the line of duty – paying the supreme sacrifice – it was the mournful toll of the bell that solemnly announced a comrade’s passing.
“We cherish these traditions as symbols to reflect honor and to bestow respect to those who have given so much and served so gallantly,” Barnes said.
Alarm code “555″ sounding symbolized the end of a comrade’s duties and the return to quarters.
All firefighters stood at attention for their “brother who has given his very best. This is his last alarm. He has now gone home” as mournful bagpipes played “Amazing Grace.”
His childhood fascination stuck with Barnes and became his life.
While serving a three-year enlistment at the former Kincheloe Air Force Base in the Upper Peninsula, Barnes began his career in firefighting with a volunteer department.
When his hitch was up in 1976, Barnes followed family footsteps and joined Dowagiac’s department, spending two years as a volunteer and another two as a fulltime firefighter before the City of Portage hired him in 1980 as a firefighter paramedic.
Barnes spent 18 years with that department near Kalamazoo, working his way through the ranks to senior firefighter, lieutenant, captain, then battalion chief/shift commander.
In February 1999, he became Westarea Fire Department’s first official fulltime fire chief in Cumberland County, N.C.
He moved his family to Fayetteville to take the reins of the three-station department, overseeing 80 paid and volunteer firefighters and 18 firetrucks and ambulances.
Mr. Coy surprised Barnes with a brief visit last summer.