Longtime volunteer answers final call

Published 10:02 pm Thursday, May 4, 2017

Willie Melvin Smith Jr. answered his final call on Monday, going home to heaven while surrounded by his family at the hospital.


The 80-year-old was the longest-serving member of the Nansemond-Suffolk Volunteer Rescue Squad. After missing being a charter member by only three months during his military service, he ran calls for 56 years, more than 20 of them as president. He was a U.S. Army veteran and also one of the first Advanced Life Support providers in Virginia.

Smith’s family remembered his many years of dedication to the rescue squad.

Email newsletter signup

“It didn’t bother him to get up out of bed and go to calls,” said Leola Smith, his wife.

Arlene Smith, his daughter, said her father didn’t have a groggy state. He was either asleep or wide awake, especially when the scanner went off or the phone rang.

“He was instantly awake, up, shoes on, grabbed his medical bag and out the door, that fast,” she said.

Thursday’s funeral procession made quite an impression. More than 25 units from the Nansemond-Suffolk Volunteer Rescue Squad, Suffolk Fire and Rescue, Chesapeake Fire Department, Isle of Wight Volunteer Rescue Squad, Medical Transport, Driver Volunteer Fire Department, Carrollton Fire and Rescue, Windsor Volunteer Rescue Squad, Chuckatuck Volunteer Fire Department, Courtland Volunteer Rescue Squad and Smithfield Volunteer Fire Department joined the procession.

The vehicles headed through town from Bethlehem Christian Church to Holly Lawn Cemetery in order to pass by the volunteer rescue squad’s station on Market Street, which had a sign draped in black.

Rusty Hundley, a rescue squad member who has known Smith for 52 years, said Smith genuinely enjoyed the medical field and the camaraderie of the organization. He also cared deeply for his patients.

“In all those years, I never saw a patient get upset with him,” Hundley said. “He had a special knack in caring for his patients. There’s a whole lot of people that are walking around today because of Melvin’s skill.”

Smith didn’t mind bringing work home with him. An ambulance was almost always parked in the family’s driveway, and the Smith home acted as the triage unit for neighborhood illnesses and injuries.

Smith was always trying to prevent injury, too. His granddaughters, Tori and Ginger Tarkington, who grew up across the street, were the only children in the neighborhood required to wear their helmets on their bicycles. He once caught them without their helmets and showed them gruesome photos of crash scenes to frighten them into obedience.

Despite all his work for the community, Smith never wanted any praise.

“Whatever needed to be done, he did it,” Hundley said. “He never looked for any glory or admiration or even thanks from it.”

He deflected praise when it did come his way. Arlene Smith recalled her father’s response to someone calling him a hero: “There’s only two kinds of heroes — sub sandwiches and Jesus Christ.”

Smith was also dedicated to helping grow the volunteer ranks.

“There were two kinds of people Melvin Smith knew: rescue squad members and potential rescue squad members,” said Rusty Blow, an NSVRS member.

His family remembered other traits outside of his passion for the rescue squad. He was frugal to a fault, loved to take photographs, was always respectful to everyone and as dedicated to his Ford job as he was to the rescue squad. He would drive Ford parts anywhere they were needed at the last minute.

He didn’t often express an opinion, but when he did, he made it known. Tori Tarkington recalled when she was dating a boy her grandfather didn’t like, he spotted her outside while mowing the lawn and rode the riding lawnmower across the street, right up to her feet, to deliver this message: “You need to find a new boyfriend.”

“When he had an opinion, he made it known, and you better listen,” said daughter Lisa Tarkington, who nevertheless described her dad’s softness when it came to his daughters. Mom was the disciplinarian in the family, both sisters agreed.

Even as Smith’s health declined the past couple of years, his dedication to his family, his job and the rescue squad never diminished. He was trying to get back to full health and keep his certification even during his battle with cancer, all the way up until his final illness.

“I have no doubt if he had made it, he would have found some way to get back in the ambulance,” Blow said.

Leola Smith agreed.

“It was what he thrived on,” she said.

Donations in Smith’s memory are requested to Nansemond-Suffolk Rescue Squad, P.O. Box 1515, Suffolk, VA 23439.