Over the years he'd experienced five chiefs and three ladder trucks.

NORTH CANTON  Jack Patterson was playing in the front yard of his home on Maple Street when he heard sirens blaring from the nearby fire station. When the engines clamored past a few minutes later, Patterson hopped on his bicycle and followed.

It was May 27, 1952, and the city's firefighters were fighting to beat back smoke and flames billowing from a square of businesses — the North Canton Restaurant, Zimmerman's Lunch, Isaly's Dairy Store and May's Barber Shop — on the corner of S. Main Street. Patterson stood on the sidewalk, enthralled.

Throughout his childhood, Patterson would hop on his bike and try to follow firetrucks through the city.

When Patterson grew up and got married, he became a firefighter himself.

"I said, 'Why chase them?'"

Capt. Jack Patterson, 72, finished his final shift with the North Canton Fire Department on Jan. 31, retiring after more than 50 years of service. Over the years he'd experienced five chiefs and three ladder trucks.

For someone to spend 50 years with the fire department is "unheard of," said Fire Chief John Bacon. "You don't hear about that too often. That somebody volunteers at one place for that long."

Patterson was known as Captain Jack around the station, Bacon said. "He was a mentor to a lot of people... A lot of guys looked up to him. He knew a lot."

Running to work

Patterson joined the department in August 1966. Firefighters had to be at least 21 before they could join, he said.

Patterson, a diabetic since age 19, also had to get special permission from his doctor.

The department was run entirely by volunteers — Patterson was a volunteer his entire fire career — and firefighters would answer if they heard the alarms and could get out of work.

Patterson and about 10 others, including the fire chief at the time, worked at the Hoover Co. The station was across the street from the plant.

"We used to run out of Hoover. We had to run out the front gate, down East Maple, across Main Street to get to the fire station," he said.

Sometimes they'd be gone 20 minutes, other times the rest of the day. 

Patterson was with the department about a month when he responded to his first fire. A crew was repairing the roof at the (now demolished) North Canton Middle School on Charlotte Street and the tar ignited.

Patterson donned his big rubber coat and boots and put on his heavy helmet.

"I was nervous. Nervous. I didn't know what to do," he said.

He learned what to do. He became a captain in 1986. 

"I was always there. I always answered the call," Patterson said. "I did a lot of training. A captain position opened up and I got it."

A long history

Looking through a collection of news clippings, Patterson reflected on some memorable calls.

There was the time his arm was caught in a closing door and he fell off the back of one of the engines. Two more trucks passed before the third stopped to pick him up.

His nephew, who had just graduated high school, was one of the department's first medics. After his first fire, the nephew told his mother he was going to college to become a doctor. He's now Patterson's cardiologist.

In the summer of 1972, fire crews fought to save a city landmark. The Wise building in the city square caught fire and flames quickly spread to nearby businesses. According to an Aug. 2, 1972, article in The (North Canton) Sun, 102 firefighters from the city and nearby departments used about 1.5 million gallons of water to battle the fire overnight. A firewall saved the entire block from being destroyed.

Patterson heard the call about 10 p.m. The fire was already raging when crews arrived.

"The whole floor, the whole basement, was red," he said. "We backed out of that and it became a defensive effort. We were there all night."

Some calls are harder to discuss.

Patterson was on the scene in December 1968 when Fire Chief James Ashbaugh exited the basement of a burning building and collapsed. He died shortly after of smoke inhalation.

"It was very hard on us. I remember standing at his casket, on duty, for four hours at his funeral," Patterson said. 

Patterson stayed with the fire department even after leaving the Hoover Co., where he was a supervisor.

"(Firefighting) is something I loved to do," he said.

"I was around. And during the day, they're always short handed."

He continued going on fire calls until last year. His final year he handled paperwork.

Wrestling, golf, politics

Patterson is well known outside of the station.

He's had the same reserved seat at Hoover football games for at least 50 years.

He ran for mayor twice and for councilman once, but admitted that he "didn't put a lot of effort into it."

If firefighting is his first passion, wrestling is probably his second. 

Patterson, himself a high school wrestler, spent 47 years officiating matches. He now helps coach wrestling at North Canton Middle School.

"I enjoyed working with (the kids)," he said.

He also loves golfing. He and his wife, Karen, spend their summers working at Arrowhead Golf Club. He's on the course any day there isn't snow on ground.

It wasn't easy for Patterson to say goodbye to firefighting. 

"It's hard. It's something you love to do and you've followed, ever since you were a kid," Patterson said.

But even without a fire to chase, he has no plans to sit still.

"There's always other things to do," he said.

Reach Jessica at 330-580-8322 or jessica.holbrook@cantonrep.com On Twitter: @jholbrookREP