UConn's 1st fire chief now dressed for the occasion

Storrs - Thirty-six years after the University of Connecticut's first career fire chief retired, Merrill Cummings was presented Thursday with a new uniform honoring his decades of service as chief.

"Thank you from the bottom of my heart," said Cummings, 94, who had to return his old uniform when he retired in 1978 and who had never owned a formal Class A uniform in which to attend functions of state.

Now he has that uniform and, as UConn Fire Lt. Christopher Renshaw explained, "he gets all the honor when he walks out in crowds."

"I always wanted to be a fireman," Cummings told the small crowd of current and former firefighters who gathered at UConn's public safety complex Thursday.

Cummings served as UConn's first paid career fire chief beginning in August 1946, following a four-year tour of duty in Europe during World War II.

During his time on the job, according to Renshaw, Cummings' department call volume swelled from 100 to close to 1,000 calls per year.

The department was also comprised of a handful of volunteer deans and faculty, evolving to nine trained professional firefighters.

As Cummings related, the department was even the source of "UConn" as an abbreviation for the university's full title.

Sometime after the school's name was changed from "Storrs Agricultural College" to the "University of Connecticut," the fire department needed a 35-footlong extension ladder elongated to 40 feet, and a welder did so.

Meanwhile, the college's former

name was removed from the side of the fire truck, but officials pondered what to paint on the side instead.

" They talked about writing ' University of Connecticut,' but it was too big," Renshaw said.

Instead, the letters "UCONN" were painted on, and over time, that nickname became widely used.

Cummings witnessed many other changes during his tenure, Renshaw said, including "the use of World War I artillery helmets and denim shirts transition(ing) to the then-'modern' firefighting gear of rubber coats and leather helmets."

When Cummings retired in 1978, he returned his uniform.

"For 36 years, Chief Cummings watched as his beloved fire department grew in size and capability, in line with his also beloved UConn Huskies," Renshaw said. "For 36 years, Chief Cummings quietly declined fire department functions, as his lack of appropriate uniform for such events weighed upon him."

Then, last year at a department reunion, Cummings was overheard mentioning that he had no Class A uniform.

Some firefighters present at the time took note of this fact and resolved to redress the situation.

Unbeknown to Cummings, both current and retired firefighters made donations, raising more than $700, so that Cummings could be given a uniform befitting his experience.

"We had to get him fitted, so it was a surprise up to that point," Renshaw said.

Appearing in full regalia Thursday, Cummings wore his new uniform, which included five bugles on the collar and five bands on the wrists, signifying the rank of chief, as well as six chevrons on the left arm to represent more than 30 years of service.

He also wore a breast badge indicating his retired chief title and a cap pin with oak leaves symbolizing his high rank.

Speaking after the ceremony, Cummings said he plans to wear the formal uniform during National Fire Prevention Week, during which he assists as a town advocate for fire prevention and safety.

"Fire history is sad," Cummings said, referencing major tragedies caused by flames.

The retired chief said he has enjoyed watching fire prevention programming get stronger and stronger over the decades, and hopes to continue playing a role in promoting safety.

"Fire prevention is 24/7," he said, "not just prevention week."

He spoke of what his new uniform means to him.

"What I went through, the years I went through - even though it was tough - I got it back," he said.

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2014 The Chronicle (Willimantic, Conn.)

Visit The Chronicle (Willimantic, Conn.) at www.thechronicle.com

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