Statue will mark the sacrifices made
Uniontown’s tribute to fireman that risk their lives will be a statue that honors two firemen who gave their lives for the city.
Reverend Peter Malik, director of the Penn Highlands Teens for Christ, first brought the idea of some kind of memorial last fall to the kids at Teens For Christ and the Bible clubs at Uniontown Area High School and Laurel Highlands High School, which are now raising money for the memorial.
The story started for Malik when he was 10 years old and a friend of the family, Gertie Norton, would take him to visit her husband’s grave in the Oak Lawn Cemetery.
One day, they passed the grave of fireman Voight LaClair.
LaClair was killed in the line of duty on March 13, 1914, after he was on the roof of a home and a 5-and-dime store. He was cutting hole in the roof with a hatchet so the hose’s water could get to the fire, when he fell.
Morton told Malik that she ran from her parent’s bakery on South Mount Vernon Avenue when she was 5 years old to witness the fire that took LaClair’s life, and how her parents spanked her for going across town all by herself.
Every time they passed LaClair’s grave, she told Malik the story and would emphasis how that fireman gave his life for the city.
Norton’s words made an impact on Malik, who found it sad that there was nothing in the city to honor the sacrifices firefighters make, including those that paid with the ultimate sacrifice.
The first fireman in Uniontown to offer his life for the city was Chief Lewis Williams, after which Chief Williams Hook and Ladder is named.
On Oct. 9, 1901, Williams fought three fires in Uniontown – at the former George Gadd’s blacksmith shop (now White Swan’s apartments) on West Main Street, in the kitchen of Mrs. Lizzi Humberstond East Main Street where the public service building now stands and finally Dr. A.P. Bowie’s stables on South Morgantown Street on Morgantown Hill.
It was after the last fire when Williams was walking back home with two other firemen to get some dry clothes. According to legend, Williams had then stopped in front of what’s now St. Peter’s Episcopal Church and said, “Wait a minute,” and he then fell into the arms of one of the other fireman, who laid him down on the church’s lawn where he died of a heart attack before doctors arrived.
It was believed that exhaustion along with the excitement and work at the fires put a lot of stress on Williams’ already weak heart.
In Uniontown’s remarkable history, the two were known as the only firemen to die in the line of duty, and they were well-known to firefighters.
Uniontown Fire Chief Myron Nypaver says the two remain memorable to firefighters because it’s a brotherhood, a “tight-nitched bunch.”
As members of both the deceased firemen’s families pass away, the story of the two firemen are starting to get lost in history, says Nypaver, but the history of the Uniontown Volunteer Fire Department has always been strong, and the tradition of the two firemen are an important part of that history.
Malik finds it shocking that nobody except firemen knew about the LaClair and Williams, and today’s firemen would actually talk about the two like they’ve know them for years, often referring to them by their first names.
Nypaver says people don’t know the sacrifices the firefighters have brought to the city and while they’ve had their share of injuries and close calls, they haven’t lost a man since LaClair. “God willing,” Nypaver says.
The idea of the statue, says Nypaver, is great in light of what firefighters have done in the eyes of the nation in the past two years so the statue isn’t just for the fallen, but for all firefighters.
A statue has already been selected.
It will be a 7-foot-tall bronze statue of a fireman kneeling in prayer on a granite base. There will be a plaques with LaClair’s and Williams’ names along with a passage of Jesus Christ from John 15:13, which Malik says is what he thinks about when thinking about the statue.
“Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends,” says the scripture.
The site for the memorial will be located at the intersection of South Mount Vernon Avenue and Pittsburgh Street.
Malik says the kids from Teens for Christ and those in the high school bible clubs are starting to raise money since May 16 and will put together a packet to take to businesses and organizations to raise $75,000; those who donate between $500 and $1,000 will be recognized on a display.