by Sue Ann Rybak
J. William “Bill” House, 16, was just looking for something to do that night he wandered into the Flourtown Firehouse in 1943.
“They asked what I was doing on Saturday,” House, now 86, said. “I said ‘Nothing.’ And that’s when they said, ‘Yes, you are. You are going to a parade with us.’”
Next thing he knew, he was a volunteer firefighter at the Flourtown Firehouse, but he never imagined it would be the beginning of a 70-year legacy.
“It was a quiet town,” House said. “There wasn’t really anything else to do.”
House’s first tour of duty with the Fire Company was brief because he was called to service with the U.S. Army Infantry in Germany and France during World War II, where he won a Bronze Star for heroism in combat as well as a Purple Heart and Good Conduct Medal. When House returned home in 1946, he resumed his volunteer firefighting efforts in Flourtown. He also married Audrey Scoble House, and together they raised two daughters and three sons.
Through the years, House’s decades of volunteer service have no doubt saved many lives, but he is a humble, quiet man who doesn’t see himself as a hero.
“It just becomes part of your life,” said the current Flourtown Fire Chief George Wilmot. “It’s not expected; it’s just a way of life. It’s almost like you don’t know any different. It’s what you know from when you’re born and raised.”
“We’re a family,” House said.
House said it was a heart-wrenching decision but one he knew it was time to make, so on Jan. 3, House retired from the Flourtown Fire Company. “I will regret that day as long as I live — which may not be too long now,” he said, laughing.
And although House doesn’t go out on calls anymore, he still can be found at the firehouse doing administrative work. Audrey, who was involved in the Ladies Auxiliary, said she was more nervous than Bill was about retiring.
All of their sons, Bill, Ken and Steve, were also members of the fire company, and several grandsons have been firefighters in their respective communities. “When the siren blew for dinner, the whole dinner table left,” said Audrey. “You didn’t know if they were going to be back in five minutes or five hours.”
House is a third-generation volunteer firefighter in five generations of firefighters. Even before the Flourtown Firehouse was established in 1910, Bill’s grandfather, John House, was involved in fighting fires by hooking the hose car to the back of the motorized trolley car.
House said after the firehouse was established, they talked his grandfather, who lived in Philadelphia, into coming out to direct traffic. “They didn’t have traffic lights in those days,” House said, “and the fire chief would stand up on the front of the engine and tell them [the firefighters] which way to go because there were no turn signals on the trucks. There wasn’t many cars around then. The guys used to jump on the back of the trolley car to come up to the fire station. Nobody knew where the fire was until they got to the firehouse.”
Bill’s father, Charles House, was an active firefighter at the Flourtown Fire House for many years and served as Fire Chief. In his long career as a firefighter, Bill has served as an Assistant Chief Engineer, Chief Engineer, Assistant Fire Chief and Fire Chief, a position he held for 25 years. “I must have done something right to be elected as Fire Chief for 25 years,” House said.
Through the years, House has seen thousands of fires, but he recalled a particularly devastating fire at the Bella Vista Sanatorium on March 29, 1950. “That place used to scare the devil out of me,” House said, adding that nine male patients died in that fire.
He said the place was like a fortress. A chain link fence went around the entire length of the property and the windows had mesh wire on them. “When we finally got into the wing, we found patients locked in their room and shackled to beds,” House said. “It was a wonder we didn’t lose more that night because it was a smoky fire.”
He said five men suffocated from the fire’s thick black fumes. House said he was coming home from the bowling alley when he saw the firetruck going down Bethlehem Pike. “If I knew what I was getting into, I probably wouldn’t have gone that night.”
He added quickly that during his time at the firehouse, they only lost one firefighter in the line of duty, Frank Wood, who had a heart attack while helping people out of a burning building. When asked if there was a moment that he was particularly proud of, House did not recall specific incidents, preferring instead to insist how proud he is of his men.
“When we pull up in front of a building that’s on fire and before you can tell them to do something, it’s already done,” House said. “Because of the training they receive, you know what they can do, and you rely on them. It’s a good feeling; whether they’re saving a life or just answering a call I am proud of them … The greatest satisfaction is when you pull up in front of a house, and someone is stuck inside, but you can get them out safely.”
“It becomes second nature for us,” Wilmot said. “We don’t think about it. You are more worried about other members of the firehouse then you are about yourself. It’s a testament to how well Bill trained the guys. You never got away with anything in Flourtown because of the bond that the firemen have with the police officers.”
For example, Audrey recalled getting a phone call from the police one night. One of her teenage sons and a few of his friends were arrested by police for throwing firecrackers out the window of a car while driving down the expressway. “I hang up on him,” Audrey said. “There are a lot of politics associated with the name House. A half-hour later I called the sergeant back. Later we became good friends. He even invited us to his house for dinner.”
Bill said he never feared for his sons’ lives because he trusted his men. “In the war, you would’ve risked your life if you saw something coming to hit somebody else. It’s the same thing here.”
“There is a reason they call it a brotherhood,” said Steve, House’s youngest son. “Growing up when the fire whistle would go off, I always wanted to hop in the car with him.”
House said it’s difficult to give something up you’ve been doing almost your entire life. “For a lot of people in Flourtown, it’s just a way of life.”
Audrey said life hasn’t really changed that much since her husband retired.
“Bill still goes to the firehouse. Only now when the fire whistle goes off, I have to tell him because he can’t always hear it.”