Ludlow Fire Chief Kolenda ‘retires,’ gets a ‘ride home’ parade

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2024 Telegraph Publishing LLC

Ludlow Fire Chief Peter Kolenda started his career in firefighting in 1970 as a junior firefighter in Proctorsville. He was just 11 years old.

Ludlow Town Manager Brendan McNamara presents a plaque to Kolenda on Sunday. Photos by Shawn Cunningham unless otherwise noted.

This past Sunday, he “retired” as chief, but said he’d stay on as a Ludlow firefighter just so he could “be the old guy sitting in the back at meetings grumbling about things.”

From the turnout of his colleagues at the fire station and spectators along the parade route through town as area departments honored him with a “ride home,” he’s likely to always be welcomed.

“You’ve done a lot for this town and you should be recognized,” said long-time firefighter Ben Whalen, who took over for Kolenda on July 1 as Ludlow’s first full-time paid chief. A fellow 1970 Proctorsville junior – Proctorsville Chief Bob Glidden – was also on hand to see Kolenda off.

Beginning around 11 a.m., firetrucks began arriving from Plymouth, Mount Holly, Proctorsville and Chester in preparation for the parade to usher Kolenda into retirement. While this was going on, Kolenda spoke to The Telegraph about his career.

After serving as a junior firefighter, he attended the firefighting program at New Hampshire’s Vo-Tech in Laconia, N.H. While there, he stayed at the Laconia fire station, a full-time fire department that would offer him experience but also save on room and board. Kolenda came home to the Proctorsville Fire Company with that experience as well as with an Associate’s Degree from the fire program. And, by 1979, he had risen to the rank of chief. He was only about 20.

The Ludlow Fire Department in a another era. Kolenda is in the center with the white shirt. LFD photo provided

The largest fire during his time at the Proctorsville Department, Kolenda recalled, was the October 1982 mill, which stood where the Rich Svec Green is today.

“I was in Chester when I heard about the fire,” said Kolenda, who was 22 at the time, “and I hurried back. There have been big improvements in communications since then. We didn’t even have pagers.” He arrived to flames shooting out of two stories of the huge mill building. The mill made various products at times including reels, furniture and audio speakers.

Two years later, Kolenda gave up his title with Proctorsville and moved as a firefighter to the Ludlow Department. In 1989, he took part in fighting another memorable fire, this one at the Ellison Block on Main Street.

The Ellison block fire from above Smith Street. LFD photo provided

“It was Christmas Eve and 22 degrees below zero. Thirty or more departments – I can’t remember exactly – responded,” said Kolenda. “We had to keep swapping out people and engines that were freezing.”

Photos at the Ludlow Fire Department depict “deck gun” water hoses keeping the fire from spreading from building to building. “There was 4 feet between the buildings,” said Kolenda. “Chief Harrison did a great job on that fire.”

Firefighters work to prevent the Ellison fire from jumping to the Sherman building. LFD photo provided

Ten years later, Kolenda began a 24 ½-year stint as Ludlow’s fire chief. In the years since, he’s seen a lot of changes to the profession, including big improvements in firefighting equipment, training and, as he noted earlier, communications. And “it’s an ever-changing dynamic” with new types of building construction and materials, he said.

When he started, departments still used firetrucks with partially open cabs that would race to fires in all types of weather, to the detriment of the firefighters on board. However bad that was, at the same time, a volunteer fire department was much larger than those today since more young folks worked in town and employers would let them leave for a fire call.

Trucks from several departments line up for the parade

“Today the young people (who could serve on the department) can’t afford to buy houses in Ludlow,” Kolenda lamented. He added that while there are more than 20 currently on the department roster, only about 15 can respond consistently.

“But it’s a great group,” Kolenda said. He noted that for 40 years, they pulled together to hold an annual auction, raising over $750,000 to buy equipment “that Ludlow’s residents did not have to pay for in taxes.” That event has since ended, he says, “there weren’t enough people to make it happen. But that’s the story everywhere, all across the country.”

People gathered along the route to wish Kolenda well, Photo by Iain Douglas

As the time for the noon parade approached, firefighters from neighboring departments gathered in the engine bay of the fire station, which sits on the edge of town on Main Street, Ludlow Town Manager Brendan McNamara, who also serves on the Proctorsville fire company, presented Kolenda with a plaque expressing the town’s appreciation for his 40 years of service.

The radio crackled to life with a “non-emergency tone” thanking Kolenda and it was time to get into the trucks and make a lot of noise.

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