December 20, 2017

The timing couldn’t have been better.

​Cullen Chalker liked his job with Delta Airlines, but he didn’t want to relocate to Atlanta to keep his job as a hydraulics mechanic. Born in Jacksonville and happy to be home from serving in World War II, the 22-year-old soon discovered an enticing option. Jacksonville’s fire department was hiring.

Chief Cullen Chalker
Chalker tested well on the employment exam and ranked 12th among 150 or so applicants in the summer of 1946. It wasn’t long before he reported to duty at Engine 9.

Back then, starting pay was $118 per month. There were only two shifts, so Firefighters worked one day on and one day off.  Fire engines were chain driven. And the backboards of those engines served as riding spots for firefighters and plugmen.

“It was scary,” said 93-year-old Chalker. “You held onto the crossbar and wrapped your arm around it.”

The Jacksonville Beach resident recently earned the distinction of JFRD’s oldest living chief, a status heralded by the Jacksonville Retired Firefighter Association. Retired  Eng. Walter Hurlbert is the oldest living firefighter.

Chalker lived the history that many JFRD members have studied. He walked the corridors of the smoldering Roosevelt Hotel in December 1963. He can still recall the urgency in Assistant Fire Chief James Dowling Jr.’s voice commanding crews to “keep working” a patient. Chalker was a District Chief when chief officers had drivers. He recalls the taillight of Fire 4 being shot out during our city’s tumultuous times in the 1960s. Jacksonville’s consolidation, JFRD’s third shift, and our Rescue Division materialized in Chalker’s 37-year career.

The closest Chalker ever came to being seriously injured was at an appliance store fire at Broad and Adams streets. While trying to make entry by climbing a ladder, an explosion occurred inside and the force knocked Chalker to the ground. What complicated the fall was another firefighter landing on Chalker leading to a back injury that he says “still gets me sometimes.”  

After retiring from JFRD in 1983, Chalker managed the Jacksonville Firemen’s Credit Union for a decade. He still serves on the credit union’s board and meets three times a month as part of the organization’s audit committee. He attends numerous retiree gatherings and keeps in touch with several of his coworkers. Chalker also attended Firefighter Chris Swary’s funeral in February.

JFRD’s oldest living fire chief understands that today’s JFRD is vastly different, but he believes firefighters “make good money” and should be thankful.  When asked what advice he’d offer rookie firefighters, he said “Get along with people and enjoy the job as much as you can. It’s the best job in the world.”