Norman Brooks was among the first four career firefighters hired by Spotsylvania County in 1981.
After the lifelong county resident retired in 2014 as a battalion chief at Company 1 on Courthouse Road, he told The Free Lance–Star it was “time to live a little bit.”
But Brooks never really left the fire service.
He stayed on as the chief of the Spotsylvania Volunteer Fire Department, which he joined in 1972.
Brooks was a firefighter to his core, with nearly a half-century of service that came to an end Tuesday with his unexpected death.
“I’ve known Norman for about 23 years. It’s who he was,” Jay Cullinan, Spotsylvania Fire, Rescue & Emergency Management chief, said Thursday. “There was nothing else in the world that he’d rather be doing and he wanted to do this until he died.”
Brooks, a 65-year-old father of six with wife Janet, was in Appleton, Wis., doing something he loved with other fire and rescue staff—inspecting a pair of new fire trucks for the county—when he collapsed Tuesday evening at a restaurant.
“It’s just unbelievable,” the Spotsylvania Volunteer Fire Department’s Deputy Chief Brad Williams said of his first-cousin’s death. “A lot of sorrow. A lot of disbelief.”
“We lost a legend in our community,” Spotsylvania Supervisor Kevin Marshall said.
Now a lieutenant with Company 8, Marshall got his start as a volunteer in 2000 and worked for and with Brooks for 18 years.
“I don’t think there was a time he didn’t have a smile on his face,” said Marshall, echoing what others said of Brooks.
Williams said Brooks “never met a stranger.”
Marshall and others also noted Brooks’ knowledge and selfless dedication to the county’s fire system.
“He never let his position and rank stop him from helping the new guys,” Marshall said. “He always offered a helping hand to the youth.”
Williams agreed, saying Brooks “led by example.” He added that Brooks’ goal was to keep “everybody working together. If not, he’d straighten things out.”
Cullinan, who worked with Brooks at Company 1 for five years, said he and others in the department found boxed gifts on Monday. Brooks left them before heading to Wisconsin. The boxes held stocking caps with fire company numbers on them.
Cullinan’s gift included a note from Brooks that mirrored the man’s philosophy.
“He stressed how important unity is in a department” if it is to serve the community the right way, the chief said.
Friction between paid and volunteer staff in fire and rescue circles is a common and often divisive issue in many localities.
Brooks served as both and is considered by many in the firefighter fraternity as a crucial player in the county’s successful implementation of a combination volunteer-and-career system.
“His role helped us kind of bridge that gap between volunteer and professionals,” Cullinan said.
“He was a huge supporter of the combination system,” he said.
While Brooks was serious about fighting fires and serving the community, he had a funny and self-deprecating side, too. Proof of that were his multiple titles in the Ugliest Woman Contest volunteer firefighters used to run as part of their carnival.
Marshall added that Brooks also was an avid outdoorsman and hunter.
“He loved to hear the dogs run,” the supervisor said.
Though his death has brought sadness and pain to family, friends and co-workers, Brooks continues to have the same impact he did during his life.
“It’s definitely brought the fire family together,” Williams said.
Arrangements for Brooks’ funeral services are still being planned.