HOLLAND — Coleman Benner may not get around as quickly as he once did, but the sagely fire chief’s desire to serve the public has stayed strong through six-and-a-half decades.
Benner recently celebrated 65 years with the Holland Volunteer Fire Department.
“I guess it just gets in your blood,” the 86-year-old said as he leaned back in his chair inside the department’s metal building.
Benner joined the department in 1953, when it was housed in a small station on Austin Street.
“We had a little building that was 30 feet wide with one truck parked behind the other one,” Benner said. “If the first one didn’t start, you had to push it out so you could get the second one started. It was very compact.”
Modern firefighters have handheld radios, but alerting emergency responders half a century ago was a little less technical.
“Way back when I joined, we didn’t have any hand radios. We had an old scanner,” Benner said. “You would get the call on the scanner, then you came to the station and blew the whistle in hopes that somebody else heard the whistle.”
When he was voted chief in 1970, Benner’s first priority was to acquire a truck capable of fighting large grass fires.
“We bought a 1971 Ford F-600 chassis at the Ford house in Bartlett. Me and the assistant chief put a lot of things together on that truck,” Benner said.
A 1,000-gallon tank purchased from a local fertilizer company was welded to the truck with a pump powered by a 20-horsepower motor.
“You talk about putting out a grass fire. We were in high cotton,” Benner said. “We would go to one of these fires to help somebody and they’d be out of water while we were still putting the fire out.”
As the department’s assets grew, so too did the need for a new home.
“I told them we needed a place to put our stuff. We applied for a loan and that’s when we built this station in 1977,” Benner said, referring to the current fire station at 109 W. Travis St.
The humble firehouse bears the name of its elder statesman. A plaque next to the door proclaims the building as the Coleman Benner Fire Station. It was dedicated in 2003 to mark Benner’s 50-year anniversary.
Fifteen years later, he’s still at the helm.
“As we came along and built up trucks and got better equipment, I said, ‘I don’t want to quit. I want to use that stuff,’” Benner said.
He currently supervises a department of 18 volunteers. And while much of his day is filled with paperwork, Benner can still be found lending a hand on the occasional call.
“I don’t go on a big fire anymore. If we’re shorthanded in the daytime, I’ll still drive a truck for a grass fire,” he said.”I fill in where I can. It takes a lot of time to keep everything a going.”
He’s up for re-election at the end of the year, and if his colleagues vote him chief once more, he said next year would likely be his last.
“If they vote me back in, I’m going to accept it one more time. I’m not going to say it’s the last time, but I think it will be,” Benner said.
Benner worked professionally for a seed company for more than two decades before serving 22 years as a Bell County constable.
His wife, Virginia, has been no stranger to public service, either. The couple married two years before Benner joined the department.
Through the decades, she has served up countless meals for volunteers, raised funds and sacrificed family time for the benefit of the community.
“I started a memorial for the fire department for when someone in the community passes away and they want to send money to the fire department,” Virginia said. “I started that in 1976. We’ve gotten quite a bit of money through that.”
She also has seen many social and family functions be put on hold as emergencies arise.
“Many times, we’ve sat down for Christmas lunch and gotten called out,” Virginia said.
The largest fire he remembers happened in the late 1980s. A brush fire started near Barnes Road and spread west nearly all the way to Salado Creek.
“We worked on it for four days. We had 21 departments out there,” Benner said. “That was a big fire. We went back out there on a Sunday morning and finally got all of it out.”
Assistant Chief Joey Perez said Benner is a wealth of knowledge for Holland and surrounding departments.
“He has provided lots of life lessons. He has so many years of knowledge that he has passed on to us younger guys. It makes things a lot easier,” Perez said. “He’s a one-of-a-kind person.”
Volunteer Charles Young formerly served as fire chief in Salado. He has spent the past five years as a volunteer in Holland and has known Benner for more than 20 years.
“He’s an icon. He’s been in it longer than anybody I know of,” Young said. “Coleman knows everybody in Bell County. If you need something, Coleman knows who to talk to and who to get help from.”
And that knowledge is something Benner takes pride in.
“They call me the granddaddy of Bell County now,” Benner said. “If something comes up about our bylaws, they say, ‘Ask Coleman.’”