CHRISTIANSBURG — Assistant Chief Mike Sullenberger of the Christiansburg Fire Company recently retired from his position after 51 years with the department.
The fire company will host an open house and award ceremony to honor Sullenberger’s retirement on Sunday, Feb. 23, from 2 to 4 p.m., at the fire house, with the awards ceremony set to begin at 3 p.m. The public is welcome and encouraged to attend.
Sullenberger, 72, was raised in Christiansburg with his six siblings. His father, Samuel D. Sullenberger, was a founding charter member of the Christiansburg Fire Co. when the department began in 1948.
From an early age, Sullenberger said he knew what he wanted to do with his life.
“When I was about five, I decided I was going to be in the Navy and I was going to be a fireman,” he said. “With my father being a founding member of the fire company, I grew up with it and I’m sure, as a young person, the excitement of it all, and the lights and sirens, lured me to it.”
After graduating from Graham High School in 1965, Sullenberger joined the Navy. After leaving the service in December of 1968, he joined the fire company on Jan. 5, 1969.
Along with growing up with a firefighter as a father, Sullenberger said he’s always felt a sense of responsibility to help others, a feeling that became even stronger once he joined the department.
“Once you get into it, you realize the need to help people; that was my main thing,” he said. “After I got old enough, I realized it was more than just a red truck going down the road; it’s helping people no matter what it takes. You’ve got to stop and help people who need it. That’s just the way I was brought up.”
The Christiansburg Fire Company is and has always been an all-volunteer department, so Sullenberger worked full time while being on-call around the clock for the fire company. With support from his bosses, he was able to balance both careers at once.
“Normally I didn’t leave work to go to a fire, but I had missed work a few times and been late because of a fire, and those jobs were very receptive,” he said.
According to Sullenberger, his role as a trained firefighter and EMT has been an asset to him outside of the fire house more than once. He even played a role in creating “response teams,” which would be available to respond quickly to any workplace emergencies, at two of his long-held jobs at B.F. Goodrich and Laser Plane.
“I’ve taken my training and abilities as a fireman and EMT out of this organization more than once,” Sullenberger said. “One day while working at Goodrich, a lady went down, and myself and a guy who was a Tipp City police officer started CPR until the EMS got there. That was successful and got a response team going there, and a similar situation happened at Laser Plane.”
In his 51 years with the fire company, Sullenberger has served as assistant chief under four fire chiefs, the most recent being Bob Hoey.
“Mike’s a good leader, and he’s been in a leadership position for a long period of time,” Hoey said. “The biggest thing is, his dedication to this department is just phenomenal. There are people who are dedicated, then there are some who aren’t. People come and go because they don’t have that desire to stay, but Mike does.”
Sullenberger said his dedication comes from a call to serve.
“Bad things happen everywhere, even in a little town, and there’s not enough money here to hire people, so somebody has to pick it up and do it,” Sullenberger said. “I’ve guess I’ve just always felt like that’s my calling.”
As part of his dedication to the fire company and his community, Sullenberger was fundamental in creating the department’s junior fire program in 1975.
“We were short some people at that time, and I was teaching a youth group at church, and I thought some of those young men could be put to work doing non-combatant type stuff,” he said. “There were other fire departments who already had these programs, so we got some bylaws and some rules from them, and it came to fruition with about 10 original youth members.”
Through the years, the program has included 64 members, aged 14 through 18, with about 23 officially joining the company once they turned 18.
Sullenberger said he always knew he wanted to work for the fire company for at least 50 years, though he didn’t stop there.
“Within this last year, I thought it’s time to step back and let someone else step up and move on,” he said.
However, though Sullenberger officially entered retired status on Jan. 5, 2020, after exactly 51 years, he will still be part of the company in several ways. Sullenberger will continue to serve as “lead fish fryer” for the biannual fish fry fundraiser, and will also continue going on occasional fire runs, if needed, given the fact that his fire and EMT certifications are good until December 2021.
Sullenberger resides in Christiansburg with his wife, Maxine. Together, the couple has three children and three grandchildren.