A Life: Romeo Russell, 1917 — 2013; ‘A Firefighter Through and Through’
I want this for my anniversary present! said Nellie Russell of Lebanon, second from left, to her husband, Romeo, as Lorraine Hodgdon, center, and Martha Losgar admire a blanket brought in by another senior in March 2006. The Russells celebrated their 66th wedding anniversary a couple of months later. (Valley News - Denise Farwell)
Nellie and Romeo Russell on their wedding day, May 25, 1940, in Lebanon. (Courtesy Nellie Russell)
Lebanon — As a teenager, Romeo Russell liked to hitch a ride on a Lebanon fire engine heading out on a call.
Eventually, the fire chief at the time caught him at a fire in Riverdale and told him to walk home. The chief also told the teenager to come back when he was old enough to contribute.
“He joined the fire department when he was 18,” said Nellie Russell, Romeo’s wife of 73 years.
“On his 18th birthday, wasn’t it Nellie?” said Lebanon Fire Capt. Andy White, who had dropped by the Russell home at Nellie’s request to talk to a reporter.
In a life characterized by devotion — to his work, his family, his city — Romeo Russell’s chief interest was the Lebanon Fire Department, which he joined in 1935 and stuck with for 40 years as a volunteer firefighter. Even in retirement, Russell remained a fixture at the firehouse, stopping by on weekends for coffee and camaraderie.
“He was a firefighter through and through,” said Bill LaPan, a longtime Lebanon fireman, now retired, and a friend of Russell’s. If Russell didn’t stop by for a visit on a Saturday, someone from the station would swing by his house to check on him, LaPan said.
Russell died July 10 at age 95. He was buried in his dress uniform and firemen bore his coffin. He was a witness to many changes in Lebanon, including a dramatic transformation of his beloved fire service.
Romeo Joseph Russell was born Sept. 29, 1917, in the Mascoma Street house his grandfather built and his parents lived in. It would be his home for life.
“He was born here and he died here and he never lived anywhere else,” Nellie Russell said.
Russell’s birth was a difficult one, his wife said, which led to him being named Romeo. An aunt, Alma LaBombard, took the baby boy, who was sickly, to be baptized right away, and named him Romeo for the baptism.
He spoke French at home and struggled mightily in school, his grand-nephew Paul Hamel said.
“He was 17 years old and just graduated the eighth grade,” said Hamel, of Enfield.
His father, Arthur Russell, took him to work in the woolen mills, a job Romeo enjoyed. He rose to be a “straw boss,” essentially the second in command on his shift, in charge of making sure the machinery ran as it should.
“He always told me he could take those looms apart in his sleep,” Hamel said.
For 12 years, he worked at the Mascoma, Baltic and Hartford mills, including time at the Mascoma mill making wool for Navy peacoats. When the mills didn’t have orders to fulfill, he worked as painter for Henry Daigle.
Russell was 17 when he first spied the girl he would marry. Nellie Dexter walked past the Russell home between the high school, then on Bank Street, and her home in Scytheville (named for a scythe factory where Slayton Hill Road meets Mechanic Street).
“Romeo saw her and said, ‘That’s the girl I’m going to marry,’ ” Hamel said. He started walking the family dog, a chow, when he knew she’d be walking by.
After five years of courting, they were married in May 1940 at the old Sacred Heart Church on School Street, in a small ceremony followed by a reception at the Russell home. Nellie’s father had died the previous fall and money was tight, she said.
Not long after they were married, Romeo’s father fell ill. At his father’s insistence, the young couple put off their plan to get a place of their own and moved into an apartment upstairs. They took care of Nellie’s mother and Romeo’s mother too. Nellie was a supervisor in the housekeeping staff at Mary Hitchcock Memorial Hospital for 15 years.
Russell tried to enlist in the military in 1944, but after selling his car in preparation, he received a letter saying he was no longer needed, Hamel said.
“He always assumed that it was because he worked at the mill,” Hamel said. (He bought his car back from the man he’d sold it to.)
After work at the mills dried up completely, Russell worked construction, running a steam-powered lift to take bricks and mortar to the upper floors of the expansion of Mary Hitchcock. Then he got a job at Lebanon High School, where he worked as a custodian, bus driver and security coordinator up until a few years ago.
But his chief interest was the fire department. As a fireman, Russell belonged to what was then a sort of fraternal organization. There was relatively little training, but many opportunities for socializing. Nellie helped start the department’s auxiliary, and while they often went out square dancing of a Saturday night or to hear the big bands down in Manchester, they also attended firemen’s balls and other functions all over the state and the valley.
“We wouldn’t miss one of them,” Nellie said, Claremont, Hanover, Woodstock, Springfield, Concord. They would also hold benefit card parties at the fire station.
There were 40 firefighters and 40 women in the auxiliary, Nellie said.
“There was always something to look forward to,” she said to Andy White. “You don’t have fun like that anymore.”
Nearly every day, the firemen played cards. They were sometimes joined by Sen. Norris Cotton and Gov. Lane Dwinell, both Lebanon residents, among other worthies.
“Every time Cotton would come to town, he’d go to the fire station,” Nellie said.
The way Russell joined the fire department isn’t uncommon, said Bill LaPan, who, like Russell, became a firefighter within days of his 18th birthday. And the department remains a brotherhood.
“If you’re a firefighter and you need something, you just need to call another firefighter and they’ll get it for you,” LaPan said.
But much has changed.
The Valley News reported on Dec. 31, 1974, on the retirement of Chief Herman Coutermarsh, who had been with the department since 1937. He had signed up following “an internal department flap which resulted in a wholesale turnover.” Of the dozen or so new men who joined the department then, only Coutermarsh, Russell and Roland Sausville were still members in 1974.
Coutermarsh had become a full-timer in 1946 under Chief Willis Hough. At the time, the department had three full-time members. By 1974, there were 12.
And when Francis Stoddard became chief in 1975, the old days were coming to an end: He did away with the daily card games.
“He made the right decision,” said LaPan, who became a volunteer in West Lebanon in 1977, and a full-time or career firefighter in 1979. “Things probably needed to change.”
At the same time, the state was establishing standards and training requirements for fire departments. The way ahead was clear: The days were numbered for volunteer firefighters, who didn’t have time to train between work and family commitments. Lebanon changed too. Mill owners were content happy to have their workers leave to fight a fire, considering their mills could be the next to go, LaPan said.
By the mid-1970s, though, Russell’s firefighting days were over. He left the department in 1976.
He was still a regular at the fire station, and became known as a great storyteller. Even in recent years, when current events escaped his mind he could still recall his firefighting career in great detail. He often talked of fighting the 1964 fire that leveled downtown Lebanon. He talked about how firefighters had to abandon their hoses when the fast-moving fire overtook their positions, LaPan said.
Not all of Russell’s recollections from the department’s more social days were about firefighting.
“Some of the stories aren’t applicable to this particular venue,” LaPan said.
Russell came into the firehouse for coffee, even later on, when he couldn’t make it up the stairs to the office.
“Even the younger guys who hardly knew Romeo, they’d bring him down a cup of coffee,” LaPan said, a show of respect for a fellow firefighter.
Alex Hanson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3219.