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Dec 14, 2017 2:39 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

Longtime Westhampton Beach Fire Commissioner Calls It A Career

Fred Overton. KATE RIGA
Dec 19, 2017 11:42 AM

Fire Commissioner Chairman Fred Overton relaxes his tall frame into a swiveling office chair behind his cluttered desk. His Westhampton Beach Fire Department office is littered with newspapers, campaign signs from his son Ray’s recent Southampton Town supervisor run, and sepia-toned photographs from his glory days on the Westhampton Beach High School basketball team. Mr. Overton is accustomed to having guests in his office. On any given day, the small room can be found crowded with other commissioners, firefighters and village residents.

Over his 60-plus years with the Westhampton Beach Fire Department, he has become a fixture, an endless font of knowledge, and a reliably sage leader and adviser. Now, as he steps down from a 15-year tenure on the department’s Board of Fire Commissioners, he and his coworkers and loved ones reflect back on his long and storied career.

Mr. Overton, now 86 and a lifelong village resident, joined the Westhampton Beach Fire Department in 1955 after fighting with the U.S. Army in the Korean War. “The main reason I joined was to be a part of the tournament team,” Mr. Overton admitted on Friday, referring to firefighter relay races that volunteers with the Westhampton Beach Fire Department used to compete in. Though the competitions are still held and feature assorted drills, such as which team can hook up a fire hose the fastest, Westhampton Beach no longer enters them.

For a 25-year-old soldier returning to civilian life, the fire department proved a good transition. “Ninety percent of the members were veterans and had been in the service,” Mr. Overton said. “The chain of command was automatic for us.”

Like in the military, the group of men Mr. Overton joined soon became a family to him, one that grew over the years with his own. He met his future bride, Joyce Benjamin, and married her in 1958; she was a Riverhead native who died 12 years ago. They had two sons—Ray, now 58 and general manager at Mulco Plumbing and Heating in Quogue, and Ricky, now 55 and teaching jazz in Japan.

Prior to retiring, their father managed La Coquille Inc., an apartment complex in Westhampton Beach, a job he would juggle with his volunteer firefighter duties.

“It’s always been a family for us,” Ray Overton said during a recent interview. “One of my earliest memories is having a firefighter helmet in my crib.”

Throughout his many years as an active firefighter, Fred Overton routinely displayed that serving his communities—both the fire department and the village—remained his top priority. “Dad believes that, in a small town, when people don’t cooperate and work together, it loses its identity,” Ray Overton added. “It’s never been about him—it’s about the department, and he always attributes successes to the group of guys, to the community.”

Fred Overton served as chief from 1980 to 1983, becoming even more critical to the operations of the fire department. “He bleeds the Westhampton Beach Fire Department,” said current Westhampton Beach Fire Department Chief Billy Dalton. “I could go in to see him weekly for all the advice and experience he has.”

When the fire department opted to form its own Board of Fire Commissioners in 2002, moving the financial responsibilities from the village trustees to the new members of the board, Mr. Overton was the natural candidate to take the helm.

Carol Nemeth, secretary and treasurer of the board of fire commissioners, says that in 15 years, Mr. Overton hardly ever missed a meeting. “He was always quickly nominated chairman at the beginning of every organizational meeting,” she recalled during a recent interview. “I have found him to be a very wise, level-headed overseer of this department.”

Ms. Nemeth added it is Mr. Overton’s compassion that allowed him to be such a strong leader. “I always told him he missed his calling as a therapist because everyone—and I mean everyone, from the 40- or 50-year guys to the rookies—felt comfortable talking to him about their issues, and he listened and could advise accordingly,” she said. “His office was a revolving door of people who checked in.”

Mr. Overton considers his greatest triumph as chairman to be the construction of the new Westhampton Beach firehouse on Sunset Avenue. The 30,000-square-foot building took nearly six years to build to the tune of $15.7 million. It replaced a structure built in 1953 that was so small as to be hazardous for firefighters trying to maneuver trucks in and out with a margin of a few inches.

Now, Mr. Overton is ready to hand in his helmet and enjoy life in the village he loves best with his girlfriend of many years, Marilyn Aldrich. “I live 500 feet from where I grew up,” he said. “And when I’m buried, it’ll be 500 feet away from there.”

Though sad to see his longtime friend leave, Tom Betjemann said he’s pleased that his fellow firefighter will finally have a chance to relax. “He’s an excellent fellow and we’re all going to miss him,” he said. “But everyone deserves a break.

“He’s put in the time,” he continued. “He has a lot of friends here, and I think he should enjoy that and be free.”

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Well done Fred. Know he will still be around for advice.
By knitter (1865), Southampton on Dec 16, 17 11:28 AM
Than you Fred for your years of joyful service. Jim Hulme
By Jim H (2), Southampton on Dec 17, 17 12:14 PM
What a great story! All the best to Fred Overton.
By Turkey Bridge (1957), Quiogue on Dec 19, 17 5:42 PM
All the best Fred,You have done a great service to your community.
By RichardTerwilliger (2), Bellport, New York on Dec 21, 17 3:36 PM
It's good to see a story like this. There are many like Fred in the volunteer fire service on Long Island. Their stories fill a link in the history of the places we call our home. It's a brotherhood that goes beyond words. Good job Fred, you will be missed.
By Joann2112 (4), westhampton beach on Dec 27, 17 8:58 AM