UNIONVILLE, Mont. — After nearly 30 years of service Wally Jester, the long-time volunteer chief of the Lewis and Clark volunteer fire department, retired after leaving an impact on the people and the communities in and around Helena.
Jester started with the LCVFD (now West Valley volunteer fire department following a merger in late 2021) in 1995, Lewis and Clark County Sheriff Leo Dutton and Jester worked with one another for a good majority of Jester's time as a volunteer after Dutton became a full-time deputy with the LCCSO in 1996. In Dutton's words, the LCVFD was in rough shape before Wally's contributions and his commitment to bettering it was noticed then and now.
"Wally is a factory original. He started when the Lewis and Clark County Fire Department was run by the sheriff and he had junk equipment, he had not much to work with," said Dutton with a chuckle. "He is a master craftsman when it comes to building things. He's a welder, that's what he did full-time at the Montana Department of Transportation. He built fire trucks, and he would get the body and then he would get a cabin, chassis, and put them together and get them tested. And he brought that fire department from the ashes up to having great equipment and great personnel."
Jester said across his nearly three-decade career with the volunteer department, he bought and refurbished three fire trucks, fought for and built the Whitlach volunteer fire station. The partial reason behind his dedication was to help hopefully someone avoid a similar situation where his world was brought to a standstill.
"When I was a senior in high school in 1969, we were cruising the drag downtown, and of course, start to run out of gas. And I says, 'Well, I got a little money in my piggy bank, let's run home and I'll get it and we'll go chase girls some more.' And David and I drove up, pulled up in front of my house, and it was surrounded by red and blue lights and the half the house that burned down to the windows was the new addition, which was the part I lived in. So, I have known personally what it's like to go, this is all I have left," said Jester motioning to his shirt. "Because that's what I did. There was just nothing there. So always someday then, I wanted to — I'd hoped to anyway, get a fire department up here to make it work and it's taken a lot of work, but I got it. It's done. And I've had some help from the neighbors and, and others that have really dug into it to make it work."
Jester made his retirement official in early July of this year, and when his neighbors caught wind of the news, the community of Unionville sprang into action to give him the retirement party he never knew he wanted.
"My neighbors were nagging me for wanting to do something for my retirement. I told them, 'Just let it go away. I'm not worried about it,' and they insisted," said Jester with a smile.
"Those kids made up wagons, cardboard fire trucks, and pulled by four-wheelers. They went up to John's house up there and got all lined up. And then Sheriff Dutton come up and was their grand marshal. They come down through there, they had a guy playing bagpipes and one of the last trucks they had a guy playing a trumpet and been playing, you know, playing music. There were all American flags are all over the place," said Jester.
The meeting space inside the firehouse was still loosely decorated from Jester's retirement party, with some streamers, balloons, and a sign with photos of Jester across his time with the LCVFD and signed by those in the community.
MTN asked what he felt the community's celebration to Jester retiring meant, he noted it was a gracious display and he's thankful to them for recognizing the time and effort he put into building not just a firehouse and fire trucks, but a community.
"One of the things that I fought for was this meeting room. The commissioners didn't want to do the expense of it, they just wanted to stop at the bathrooms, and I insisted that we spend the money and get a meeting room. Because you need to get that community back together. My folks moved here in 1953 and it was a small community then. Everybody knew everybody, if somebody got sick, they're all taking care of each other like the old days. And I moved away got married and then when I came back here in mid-90s, it was kind of like, 'No Trespassing,' signs everywhere. Nobody knew anybody," said Jester. "In the last few years, you should see the difference. They come together, they have soup and bread days, they'll — before the COVID hit — they were doing them about once a month. All the neighbors bring their favorite recipes and they come down here and spend a couple hours and then there's some local musicians around there that would come down and play and, and it's awesome."
"That's why this is here — it's they, they wanted me to know how much it meant to them."