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OPINION | GREG HARTON: An empty tank fuels 56 years of public service

by Greg Harton | July 21, 2021 at 5:25 a.m.

Perhaps it's inevitable headlines, in Arkansas or any other state, are mostly occupied by movers and shakers like governors and senators. And sometimes by loudmouth lawmakers or other public officials who enjoy the sounds of their own voices. And occasionally, and fittingly, they feature a big-time business man or woman who can make a splash with a generous donation to a great cause.

Meanwhile, in a lot of Arkansas communities, there are others who just get things done. Who can be counted on when times are good and even more when times get rough. Some might say it's a big fish in a small pond, and they might not mean it as a compliment. But that's the way I would take it, because in the small towns, people don't make a name for themselves by having big political war chests from which to buy commercials on TV. In small towns, folks earn their stature when neighbors see them pitching in for the good of those around them.

Mitch McCorkle earned his stature over the course of 56 years. That's how long he served as the chief of the West Fork Fire Department.

"He woke up every morning thinking about safety and programs to make the community safer and he went to bed every night thinking about the same thing," said Steve Harrison, who today is the assistant chief of Central EMS, the ambulance service that serves Fayetteville and much of the more heavily populated areas of Washington County.

Harrison, who is 56 today, was 16 and had served as a student fire marshal at West Fork High School when McCorkle let him join the town's volunteer fire department. The chief also put Harrison to work on his dairy farm, as he had a bunch of the kids in town and the surrounding area.

These are kids who today make up a who's who list from area public safety agencies, ones such as Greg Tabor, former chief of police in Fayetteville and the current U.S. Marshal for western Arkansas. And like Tim Helder, the sheriff of Washington County, along with lots of others.

McCorkle wanted all the kids to get an education, in school and in life, Harrison said. McCorkle taught a lot of them how to farm, too.

"He was a good teacher," Harrison said. "He was strict with his stuff, but very patient to teach you things."

He had a gruff facade, but he was passionate about the community and keeping it safe, Harrison recalled.

It was in 1960 when McCorkle's tenure began. Before he was chief, the town's fire effort was disorganized, according to Harrison. One day came a fire call and the firefighters made it about a block and a half down the street when the truck ran out of gas. McCorkle, standing in the street with a useless fire engine, told others how they couldn't let these kinds of things happen, that someone had to be in charge of making sure the fire truck was ready to go.

A fire chief was born.

"From that point forward, he wanted everything we did, from fighting fires to extricating people from vehicles, to be the best," Harrison said.

Mitch McCorkle retired in 2016. On July 8, the community marked his passing with a traditional firefighter's memorial service, at which dozens of area public safety agencies were represented.

Those gathered heard the three bells, a last call for one of their own and the haunting sound of bagpipes. His remains were taken from the church to the cemetery on the last fire engine McCorkle had a role in purchasing for the safety of West Fork, Greenland and areas nearby.

Not every community has someone with the longevity and the never-say-quit tenacity of a Mitch McCorkle, but the ones who do are blessed.

Print Headline: Empty tank fuels 56 years serving town


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