Gifts of Memory & Remembrance
June 27, 2007
Ever since I was a young girl I have had a great love for the fire service. Through my short stint as a volunteer firefighter in the mid-eighties until now as the Office Manager for the Greensboro Fire Prevention Bureau it has remained. Several years ago my mother told me about her uncle Wade; who was a ranger with the NC Forestry Service in Swain County. She told me he had been killed fighting a wildfire back in December of 1968. She gave me two newspaper articles; one on the fire and one on a memorial that was erected in his honor on the Appalachian Trail. Since receiving these articles it has been a desire of mine to try to find the memorial but I knew that I did not want to go on this journey alone.
On May 6, 2006, I went with several members of the Greensboro Fire Department to Raleigh for the first NC Fallen Firefighters Foundation Memorial Service It was a beautiful day and I was in awe of all the trucks and firefighters that were there representing, it seemed, every department in the state. I was also struck by the sight and sounds of the pipe and drum band from the Charlotte Fire Department that quickly grabbed everyone’s attention. But as the parade went down the street something else caught my eye — a dark green tractor trailer cab with what appeared to be a piece of heavy equipment on the attached trailer. On the side of the cab was the NC Forestry Service emblem. It wasn’t as pretty as the other trucks in the parade but it definitely stood out among them. I was curious as to why it would be in the parade since I had no idea that the forestry service would be represented.
During the memorial service as they began to call out the names of the fallen firefighters in the program, I looked down the list and saw with amazement one name that jumped off the page. “Wade A. Sutton / December 7, 1968 / North Carolina Forestry Service”. It was my great uncle! He was one of the fallen firefighters being honored. As I saw the family members go up for each name that was called out I noticed they were escorted by a firefighter when they went up to receive the flag and rose. I also noticed that my uncle’s name was just a few names away from being called and as my mind raced I began to scan the crowd for one of the guys from station 5. At the same time I was wondering if there was anyone else from my family there. I finally found some of our guys in time to ask one of them if they would escort me when Uncle Wade’s name was called just in case no one else was there to go up. A firefighter volunteered and when Wade’s name was called I saw a ranger from the forestry service come out of the crowd and walk up to receive his flag and rose. The firefighter escort and I hurried through the crowd only in time to approach the ranger from behind as he was headed back into the crowd. I tapped the ranger on the back and told him that I was Wade Sutton’s great niece and before I could say anything else he said that they had not been able to contact anyone from the family and that this flag and rose belonged to me. As he handed them to me I was surprised at how quickly everything had just transpired. Thirty minutes prior to all of this I didn’t even know that my great uncle was going to be honored and now I was standing there with his flag and rose in my hands. It was an incredible moment. I couldn’t wait to share it with my family and friends back in Greensboro.
Fast forward to . . . About a year later, Dana had an opportunity to go with a friend, on a special “mission” — a mission to find her great uncle’s memorial.
May 13, 2007
When we arrived in Bryson City we immediately began looking for the fire station. You noticed I said “the” fire station, not “a” fire station. Bryson City is a quaint little town that has a 1950’s feel to it. I felt like we had just stepped back in time as if we were in Mayberry. It was wonderful. We found the station but didn’t have any luck finding anyone there until a bright yellow motorcycle pulled up out front. The gentleman on the bike introduced himself as one of the Captains with the department and he was kind enough to help us when we told him why we were there. We told him that we were looking for the memorial but had no idea where to begin. The Captain said he had heard of my great uncle and the story about how he had died. He made a call to his Chief who he said knew what had happened and that the Chief’s father actually knew Uncle Wade. It wasn’t long after that phone call that the Chief’s father called back and said he was on his way down to meet with us. It was at that moment I knew this whole trip was “God ordained”. How else could all of this be coming together so easily?
Once he got to the station, he began to tell us how my great uncle died and how the other rangers were finally able to bring his body out after the fire. He was not actually there but he knew some of the rangers who were. After giving us directions to find the trail and the memorial we decided to call it a day since it was getting pretty late. We would have to wait until the next day to complete our mission.
May 14, 2007:
That next day we got an early start and began looking for the road that led to the Appalachian Trail. We found the road without too much trouble but finding the trail was another story. As we kept riding we realized that the winding road was taking us pretty far back into the hills. It was a beautiful ride but we started to wonder if we had somehow missed the marker for the trail. There were several houses dotted along the roadside and we decided to stop at one where we saw an elderly couple out working in their garden. We stopped and got out to introduce ourselves and talk with them.
Milton and Thelma Woodard were the sweetest couple — Thelma had the loveliest smile and Milton looked just like my grandfather! When we told them why we were in the area Milton said something that rocked me back on my heels. He told us that he was one of the men who helped the rangers bring Uncle Wade’s body down off the mountain after the fire! At this point I was in awe of how Good God is. He was orchestrating this whole trip and I was enjoying every minute of it. Milton and Thelma made us feel so at home that we wound up visiting with them quite a while. They told us that the marker to the trail was just a little further down the road and after making sure we had water they sent us off to continue our journey.
After driving a little further down the road, we found the trail and began the mile hike to the memorial. All along the trail the mountain laurels were in bloom with pink and white blossoms. Several times I stopped to pick off a branch with intentions of taking them back to Thelma so I could thank her for her hospitality. It was also a good excuse to catch my breath!
About forty-five minutes after we began our hike we found the memorial. I could now see with my own eyes and touch with my hands the stones and the plaque that up to this point I had only read and heard about. It was a bitter-sweet moment. As I read the plaque I noticed that there were smaller stones that had been placed around it.
My friend told me that this was a way of honoring and showing respect for the one being memorialized. I kept thinking about the thousands of people who for the past 37 years have stopped here to take the time to not only read about the man who gave his life but also to honor him and <perhaps> even send up prayer for those he left behind. To them he was an unknown, but to me he is family. Not just fire service family but blood-related family. I was only 4 years old when he died and if I ever met him I don’t remember, but at that moment I promised I would never forget him.
We stayed for just a little while and after taking some pictures we headed back down the trail to the car. We stopped back by to see Milton and Thelma in order to thank them again for all their help and kindness. I gave Thelma the flowers I had picked and we gave Milton a fire department t-shirt. We felt so close to them that it was hard to leave. As we headed back down the road all I could think about was what an amazing couple of days it had been. When we started out we had no idea what was going to happen or if we would even find the memorial. But God ordered our steps all the way and blessed us beyond anything I could ever imagine.
There are now three memorials in honor of my Great Uncle. First is the plaque on the Appalachian Trail. Secondly, his name is on one of the plaques at the NC Fallen Firefighters Memorial in Raleigh. And a few years ago a brick with his name was placed in front of station 1 in Greensboro. As thankful as I am, these things are only temporary. What is in my heart is eternal. I will always remember the sacrifice he made and I will always remember the incredible journey that I shared with my friends.
Edited version by Gene W. Moore is taken from Dana Boylan’s Journal Account of her search and finding of her Great Uncle Wade A. Sutton’s Memorial on The Appalachian Trail. Ranger Sutton was with the North Carolina Forestry Service.