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Late Firefighter’s Roots Ran Deep

Gerald Root was charter member of Collinsville Fire Department.

Gerald K. Root’s community ties ran deep.

A lifelong resident of Collinsville, Root was a charter member of the Collinsville Volunteer Fire Department, which started in 1966 after the Collins Company closed. 

From the beginning Root, who died last week at age 89, went well beyond the call of volunteer duty, said friends, including Collinsville Fire Department Inc. president Willi Matava. 

Matava said he performed whatever tasks necessary whether fighting a fire or driving an ambulance, since the department had also taken over the duties of the Canton Memorial Ambulance service. It was an era of less specialization, Matava said.

“Back then we did whatever it took to get the job done,” said Matava, who joined in 1973. 

The department was certainly not the only community involvement Root had. His obituary references his work as head custodian for the school system and involvement in the Albert Johnson American Legion Post #90 in Collinsville and St. Patrick's Church in Collinsville and love of family. For more than 60 years, he also lived in the house he and family built on Thayer Avenue. Root received The Purple Heart as a Medic with the U.S. Army during World War II.

He was also enjoyed hunting and fishing. 

Arthur Merz, friend and fellow fire department charter member, said the two spent time together enjoying the outdoors up north but said the Collinsville Fire Department remained a constant in his life.

Merz said he would go there every day, following a routine on the weekends.

“He’d have breakfast, drive up to the reservoir and back to the fire house,” Merz said.

From the beginning, when the department operated out of a building on Front Street, Root spent time policing the area, keeping the firehouse clean and of keeping the essentials on hand, Matava said.  

“He always made sure the refreshments were stocked,” Matava said.

When the town built a new firehouse on River Road, Root was again in the middle of it all, including an effort to set up a room in the basement during a much different era, where firefighters could get together on a slow day or after a fire and enjoy a cold one or two.

“It was just a boiler room,” Root said in an interview days before his death. “We paneled it, and laid down the floor and put a ceiling up.”

And the other members surprised him by dubbing it the “Root Cellar.”

Over the years it would be a place where he spent many hours.

“He became such a permanent fixture down there,” Matava said.

Matava said Root also spent numerous hours at events such as the department’s annual jamboree, still run by the Collinsville association that supports the town of Canton Volunteer Fire and EMS Department.

He would cook, participate in work parties and help shuck corn, according to Matava.

“They would just shuck corn, shuck corn for hours,” Matava said.

Catherine Root, his wife of more than 65 years, said he would also set up fireworks for the jamboree.

In the interview with Patch, Root talked a little about his other connections in town, including the Collins Company.

He said his real father was killed at the factory when Gerry, sometimes spelled Jerry, was just two-years-old.

Later, Gerry went on to work for the company, running a riveting machine and painting handles for machetes.

“I’d put the rivets in and I was punching them,” Root said. “It wasn’t bad but the pay was no good,” he said adding it was $18 a week.

Root also shared some stories about being a firefighter. 

One was the system used to tell members about a fire or other emergency incident. A siren would sound but some would be out of range or perhaps in their homes so the dispatcher would also make an initial call and start a phone “relay.”

“He’d be on his way out the door and he’d say call this number,” Catherine Root said. “I’d call the number and they’d call the next number.”

And of course Root does remember that camaraderie that firefighters develop with those who also put their lives on the line.

“I just remember all the guys,” Root said. “They’re probably the nicest guys you ever met.”

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