Former fire chief did a lot for the town

Former Southwest Harbor Fire Chief Sam Chisholm died unexpectedly at his home June 7. 

SOUTHWEST HARBOR — In his four decades here, Sam Chisholm left a positive impression on nearly every town department and each person who worked with him.

Southwest Harbor’s Fire Chief from 1995 to 2015, Chisholm died on June 7 unexpectedly at his home. Most recently, he served as the Deputy Fire Chief alongside his son, Fire Chief Tom Chisholm.

It wasn’t just the fire department that Chisholm was a part of for 43 years. He also worked in the town’s police department as an officer and a dispatcher, on the ambulance service and in the highway/public works department, continuing to drive a plow truck this last winter.

“I first met him when he worked for the town,” said Public Works Foreman Scott Alley, about meeting Chisholm 15 or 20 years ago in the highway department. “We’ve been good friends ever since. He’s done a lot for the town. He was great to work with. I thought of him as a brother. He was always there to bail me out when I needed him.”

Southwest Harbor resident Thom Willey was in grammar school when he met Chisholm, who was stationed in the Coast Guard at the time. Willey remembers getting a tour on the station’s bridle boat and then becoming a permanent fixture at the town’s fire station.

“We kind of hooked up with the firehouse and we practically lived there,” said Willey about himself and his cousin, Dave Kelley. “If we weren’t at home, we were at the fire station.”

With Chisholm’s guidance, the two young men initiated a junior fire department, which went on to train many future firefighters on the force, and continues to do so.

“He was a big advocate for kids and trying to attract them on the force,” said Willey, who went on to volunteer with the department for 32 years. “Train your replacement, was his mantra… He was definitely a great leader. I would follow him anywhere.

“We always felt really safe on the fire ground when he showed up with his tilted white hat and open jacket. Sam would always put a lot of trust in people. He was a guy who knew it all.”

Junior Firefighter Thom Willey sits with Sam Chisholm on the back of an old firetruck in 1980. Willey became the fire department’s mascot, Fire O’Duck. One of Chisholm’s famous sayings when members of the department attended parades and firemen musters was, “Bring the truck and the duck.”

Willey was part of the department when attending firemen musters and parades were common practice. “Somehow I got roped into being the mascot,” he said about the department’s representative, Fire O’Duck. “It was a costume I made with my mom… Sam was famous for saying, ‘bring the truck and the duck.’”

Outside of his leadership, Chisholm was one to not take things too seriously, according to Willey, who had more stories than he could count about the former fire chief. One in particular was about a boat that had broken loose and was on fire. After it was pushed onto the beach, firefighters on site were directed to extinguish the flames by nontraditional means.

“It was winter, so instead of hooking up the trucks, he had us just line up and throw snowballs at it,” said Willey. “He was very big in building the Southwest Harbor department into what it is today.”

Jack Martel, who joined the department in 1978, a couple of years after Chisholm, said the same.

“He was responsible for a lot of stuff over the years,” said Martel. “He continued to upgrade the fire department. He worked for years to get a new fire station… It’s a station we love, with plenty of room. He was the main force to get that through.”

Chisholm became fire chief in 1995 and was in that position until 2015. Martel was chief from 2016 to 2018.

“I’ve worked with him the whole time we were on the fire department,” he said earlier this week while looking over photographs from their years of working together. “He really did a lot of stuff for the town. He was excellent at electronics. He did most of the work we had to have done at the fire station.”

During his time as a resident of the town, Chisholm, shown here with Bill Trotter of the Bangor Daily News, not only served on the fire department, but also the public works department, the police department as an officer and dispatcher, and for the ambulance service. 

According to Martel, Chisholm exhibited the traits of a chief even before he was chosen to be one. In 1993, when the Bluenose Inn in Bar Harbor burned, Southwest Harbor responded for mutual aid.

“We went over later and things were still burning pretty good,” Martel recalled. Bar Harbor Fire Chief David Rand decided he needed to go home and rest after fighting the fire for several hours and left Chisholm, who had not yet been made chief, in charge. “Sam was in command of that fire for a while. I was inside one of the rooms fighting the fire. I felt he did a good job. He was in command and I was inside fighting fire… that’s pretty much how it was for 20 years.

“We were pretty much always on the same page. It was a pleasure working with him.”
As a junior firefighter, Kelley took in a lot of what Chisholm offered for guidance and advice and then continued to serve as a volunteer firefighter for many years. One thing he taught me, recalled Kelley, is when you’re pumping a truck, look at the pump panel and decide where the water is coming from, how much you need and where it is going. “That’s one thing he taught me that stuck with me,” he said, adding that he knew Chisholm for 41 years. “Sam always took time for everyone, that was his thing.”

Kelley’s partner, Traci Patton, is a dispatcher with the Southwest Harbor Police Department and someone who appreciated both Chisholm’s knowledge and friendship. “Sam was literally one in a million,” she wrote on her Facebook page after Chisholm’s passing. “He was a mentor, and more importantly, a friend. He was here at work a few weeks ago, showing me a few things with the radio console. That was done in a few minutes. He stayed and chatted for another 30 minutes or so. That was typical.”

Outside of pushing snow in a town plow truck this last winter, Chisholm was actively working to improve the town’s emergency services’ radio frequencies.

“There’s so much about Sam,” said Interim Police Chief Mike Miller. “He was the one who took care of radio frequencies and the radio tower. I really liked Sam. He’s going to be greatly missed.”

A memorial service is scheduled to take place this Saturday, June 19, at 2 p.m. at the Southwest Harbor Fire Station on Main Street.

Sarah Hinckley

Sarah Hinckley

Former Islander reporter Sarah Hinckley covered the towns of Southwest Harbor, Tremont and neighboring islands.

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