If you want to be a clown… – Chief Billy Obenchain
Please read through this entire post to learn about Billy, view pictures, and see past articles. The reference in the title of this post will be recognized by many, but if you don’t get it you will if you read this article all the way to the bottom!
If there are updates to this post I will let you know!
Funeral and visitation arrangements for Billy Obenchain are: visitation Sunday December 27 from 1-4 and 6-9 at Oakeys in Vinton, Funeral will be Monday December 28 at 11am at Vinton Baptist Church.
A true hero died today! Retired Battalion Chief William E. Obenchain Jr. passed away at his home. Chief had suffered for years with Cutaneous T-Cell Lymphoma. Recently he began battling leukemia. He never complained.
Billy’s last assignment was Northside Battalion Chief on C-Shift. He was hired on November 9, 1981.
To say that he was the most beloved firefighter would be a gross understatement. He was known and loved by so many. Not just for his leadership and managerial qualities as a Chief but also because he was a great firefighter. He served in many roles and ranks within the Roanoke Fire Department and later the Roanoke Fire-EMS Department. His tenure as Battalion Chief might have been shorter and he might have continued climbing the ranks had he not become ill. You never know, he might have become a Deputy Chief or even Chief of the Department.
Billy is widely known by the “younger” generation coming into the fire service for his infamous speech given at a live burn exercise. Since, the speech has been recited at each recruit school in Roanoke City. The speech can be viewed in a previous article published as a part of this post located at the bottom of this post.
Billy wasn’t ONLY a firefighter. Actually, Billy was a husband, father, brother, son, uncle, grandfather, and friend. He drew much of his strength in the last several years from his grandson Hunter. It was enough for me to see him light up when you asked about Hunter.
Billy’s brother, Randy, was also a firefighter in Roanoke City. He retired in 2005 at the rank of Lieutenant. Billy’s son ,Zak, is a firefighter at station 2 C-shift.
He was a long standing Council Member for the town of Vinton. His current term ending 6/30/2010. Actually, Chief got his start as a volunteer for the Vinton Volunteer Fire Department back in the day. He is a life member.
His wife Karen has been a rock during the last many years of Billy traveling to Duke for treatments. Her caring of Billy and watching over him while he suffered has been a testament of their love for one another.
Needless to say that Billy’s family extends a lot farther than his niche in how you may know him. Even in the fire service, his reputation spread like wildfire. Chief was one of the guys you looked up to for how to do things like respect others, treat others well, and give each other a good ribbing. Oh yeah…Billy enjoyed having fun. Working with the likes of Louie Kennett, Oscar Smith, John Sweeney, and Billy you were not given much room for error. Indeed he worked around some great guys! Some guys who will be forever enshrined in the history of Firefighting in Roanoke by the stories they are attached to.
Billy Obenchain is one of those names which will remain in stories, history, and lessons which new firefighters will learn about in future generations. Roanoke has some of the best firefighters in the World. Most of them are not easily impressible. Needless to say, when Billy walked in the room people gathered to hear what he had to say. We wanted to learn…we needed to learn…
If there were a Roanoke Hall of Flame, Chief Obenchain would be on the top of the list!
No matter what…
WE WILL NEVER FORGET BATTALION CHIEF WILLIAM E. OBENCHAIN JR.
The following was an original article written by me and posted on VAFireNews.com. The article was deleted when VAFireNews.com was redesigned in Nov. 2008. On one occasion in the summer of 2009, Billy found out about this article and the following article. I got him copies of both.This article was originally written on November 11, 2006.
A Retirement Dinner for a Heroes Hero
Story and Pictures By Rhett Fleitz
Last night, over 100 firefighters, friends, and family members of Retiring Battalion Chief Billy Obenchain packed the Roanoke Fire Fighters Association Union Hall to celebrate the career of their Brother. Billy Obenchain has been suffering from Cutaneous T-Cell Lymphoma, and has decided to retire after being off of work for several months battling the disease. Prior to Billy going on sick leave, he was able to battle the disease and work, while going to Duke for treatments on his days off.
Captain Anthony Wallace and the rest of his firefighters from Station 9 C-shift hosted the evening featuring a catered dinner from J.J. Price (4A) and Trung Nguyen.
Soon after Billy arrived, Captain Charlie Fochtman began the evening with a heartfelt speech which left very few dry eyes. Billy responded by telling the crowded Hall that “I didn’t make me, you made me” a humble response to the outpouring of support and recognition for a man who so many look up to. Billy’s Wife, Son, and daughter in law were right by his side. Gary Huff, a Battalion Chief in Roanoke County and longtime friend of Billy, and his wife attended as well.
Some of the on-duty Firefighters were able to stop by and enjoy dinner as well. The on-duty crews rotated throughout the evening so that as many Companies could attend as possible, while still keeping the City protected.
Billy was also given some very special gifts during the evening. Firefighters got him a replica brass bugle, reminiscent of the beginning of the Roanoke Fire Department 125 years ago. Billy was also presented with a frame of his helmet shield, Roanoke Fire-EMS patch, and the name plate and “Battalion Chief” off of his turnout gear. Firefighters had a cake made which was a replica of his helmet.
This next article, again in its entirety, was also removed when VAFireNews.com was redesigned. The story was about Billy retiring and was published on October 8th 2006.
Roanoke City Retires an Icon
Yesterday morning the firefighters of Roanoke City’s Northside C-Shift Battalion learned that their beloved Battalion Chief was retiring. Battalion Chief William “Billy” Obenchain announced that he will be retiring from the job he loved. Billy stated “I wanted to be here a long time because I enjoyed coming to work”. Billy has been battling Cutaneous T-Cell Lymphoma for several years and has been unable to work for the past several months due to the illness. For years, his love of the job was contagious among his subordinates and often brought out the best in his firefighters.
In a cluster meeting of several companies, Billy said “There is nothing like what is in this room next to your Families and God”. He felt his most important goal was to return each of his firefighters home the following morning just as they had come to work.
To say that Billy is the most respected member of the Roanoke City Fire-EMS Department would be an understatement. Ever since he joined the Department in November of 1981, he knew the importance of the Brotherhood of Firefighting. He set the bar high and ensured that his men knew their job and would perform under any circumstances. He demanded his firefighters to continue learning throughout their careers, and challenged them every day.
Billy hopes that the future firefighters of Roanoke City will “learn the spirit of the job and the spirit of love for one another” just as he made sure he never lost sight of. Billy felt the most important part of being a firefighter is taking care of each other.
Randy Obenchain, Billy’s brother, drove the two around from station to station as they delivered the sorely anticipated news. Randy retired last November after 27 years in the department. He sat quiet as Billy spoke about leaving the department he loved in less then ideal circumstances. Much like Billy’s battle with his illness, delivering the news was not easy to do. Battling through tears, Billy expressed his love for the job.
Billy’s firefighters, especially his crew at station #2, had witnessed his quiet suffering over the past several years while he remained working, hoping to beat the illness and keep doing the job he loved.
The firefighters of Roanoke City have championed Billy’s cause and began raising money for research of Cutaneous T-Cell Lymphoma. A t-shirt has been marketed with a tribute to the beloved Chief. The back of the shirt reads:
If you want to be a clown,
you’d better be lookin’ for a circus.
If you’re lookin’ for a free ride,
here’s a dollar; call a cab.
If you want to be a “Showman”,
Vegas will welcome you with open arms.
If fulfillment of an ego is high on your
priority list, might I suggest Hollywood.
And if you want to be a millionaire,
by all means, this ain’t for you.
But, if you don’t mind hard work, sweating in
freezing weather, getting back less than half of
what you give, and finding your name at the
bottom of your own priority list,
then stick around!
I believe you could be a FIREFIGHTER
Battalion Chief William “Billy” Obenchain
This poem, read at the beginning of each Roanoke City Recruit School, is the unofficial creed of the Roanoke Fire-EMS Department. Billy wrote it during a live fire training exercise in Roanoke several years ago. If you would like to purchase a t-shirt, please contact Richard Lipes at Rlipes@msn.com.