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Sunny skies beamed down on a crowd of about 250 who gathered Saturday morning at the corner of Bonne Terre’s Allen and St. Joseph streets to dedicate Big River/Bonne Terre Fire Department’s new firehouse and to help christen their ladder truck, two more gifts to the city made by a benevolent businessman who has transformed a vacant school complex into facilities for city government and residents of the town.

The new firehouse makes use of an old gymnasium that had once been part of the North County School District. Their old firehouse, located at North Division and Ash streets, had been in use for 47 years and needed too many alterations to accommodate Bonne Terre’s growing needs and the expanded technology and equipment necessary for modern firefighting.

Local businessman Sharo Shirshekan purchased the vacant North County school building complex, which has a footprint of several city blocks, in 2005. When the old school gymnasium was designated to be a firehouse, the renovation project took into account specifications required by the department’s first ladder truck, which Shirshekan also donated and the department accepted in February.

The renovations on the firehouse took only about a year to complete, the building having waited patiently for about 13 years as Shirshekan was busy renovating the rest of the complex for the city’s senior nutrition center, police department, and government offices. The facility turned out to be well worth the time invested.

On hand at Saturday’s dedication, Shirshekan credited God as Bonne Terre’s ultimate benefactor, not himself.

“All I did was the work, and I am so grateful he chose me to deliver this complex. It all belongs to you. God blesses us when the deepest love that we have, the deepest satisfaction we have, is Agape love for God,” Shirshekan said during the ceremonies. “Moses had 10 Commandments. Judaism has 613 commandments, but Jesus had one commandment: love one another just like I love you. When you love God, he blesses you. There’s more coming to you. All glory to God. This is his gift to you, it’s not me. Bless you all.”

Big River/Bonne Terre Fire Department Chief David Pratte briefly choked up during his speech at the podium, when he recalled Shirshekan’s benevolence during the project.

“’Blessed’ is not descriptive enough, there aren’t words enough to say how blessed we are with this gift to keep us safe, help with our insurance rating, and spare our finances,” Pratte said. “One man, with his faith and the ability to listen to what God’s saying to him, started us all on the most miraculous journey I’ve ever been on and had the privilege to take part of ... Once in a lifetime does a group of us receive a gift of this magnitude. For generations to come, our community will benefit. ‘Thank you’ is as small as a grain of sand, compared to the gratitude I feel.”

Missouri State Fire Marshal J. Tim Bean and his wife, Judy, were on hand for the celebration. Before handing towels out to the crowd taking part in the ladder truck christening, Fire Marshal Bean expressed congratulations to the city.

“This is beautiful, I’m privileged and honored to be a part of this. We had the same type of situation when I was in West Plains. When we transitioned to a new station, we had to leave the old one and it was bittersweet. There were a lot of memories and a lot of things that went on at that old station, and it was a sad day when they tore it down, but with that comes progress ... I wish you well in the generations to come.”

Mayor Brandon Hubbard reiterated thanks to Shirshekan, and thanked Chief Pratte and his firefighters for their service.

“I want to thank all the hardworking men and women of the fire department, we appreciate your service and sacrifice,” he said. “A lot of hours go in, a lot of sleepless nights, and it’s greatly appreciated all you do to keep us safe.”

Master of ceremonies and retired fire chief Bill Westhoff echoed the sacrifice in his remarks.

“This building, the trucks, the equipment, will not function by themselves,” he said. “The true dedication actually resides in the firefighters. I have been in dining rooms during Thanksgiving or other holidays, and when the alarm sounds, chairs are knocked over, responding to the call. These people are gone for a few hours. The turkey’s gone. The pies are cold. The whipped cream has been used up. The firefighters drag back in from wherever they were, having served other people. That takes dedication.” Westhoff later gifted copies of a book he had written about Missouri fire service to both Shirshekan and Pratte.

Samantha McDowell, president of the Bonne Terre Chamber of Commerce, said the chamber’s goal is to create a thriving economy in their towns. The addition of the new ladder truck and the firehouse’s training center are greatly expected to bring down the city’s ISO rating, resulting in cheaper insurance rates for Bonne Terre. Since the firehouse dedication was a different experience than a business opening, McDowell and Shirshekan performed a “firehose-unfastening” in front of one of the bays, instead of performing the usual ribbon cutting.

There were many other touching activities. The dedication included a community christening of the ladder truck Shirshekan gave the city in February. Westhoff explained the christening was based on a “spray-down, push-in” tradition in which horse-led fire carts would be brought back after fighting fires, and the overheated horses would be sprayed down with water while the carts would be pushed back into the station by weary firefighters.

As the crowd was being plied with commemorative fire department towels, firefighters Ben Bailey, who earlier sang the National Anthem, and Matt Price prepared the truck to be wiped down before Chief Pratte carefully backed the ladder truck into its new home at the station.

“When Sharo was asking me what I wanted during the renovations, I told him I wanted four 14 by 14 foot doors, and he looked at me like I was crazy,” Pratte said. “But these trucks just keep getting longer and taller, and if we spend as long in this building as we did in the last station (47 years), we need to build for growth.”

One person who would have been delighted by the ladder truck and the firehouse, was longtime city employee Clarence “Butch” Keen Sr., who died in 2002 but had spent 39 years in firefighting service to Bonne Terre and rural fire departments. His son, Paul, was invited to unveil a plaque that denoted his father’s contributions which will hang in the training room bearing his father’s name.

Chief Pratte explained why the training room was named after Keen.

“As we grow up, we have heroes in our life. The people in your life, they might lead you and you don’t know it, but they’re teaching you who you’re going to be. I’ve had several in my life, and one was Butch Keen,” Pratte said. “He was in fire service for 39 years, he took me under his wing, taught me everything he could teach me…spanked me when I needed spanking, kept me in line, and when you get up to being a lieutenant or captain, you think you know it all, but he’d reel me in … It’s so fitting that our training room is dedicated in his name.”

Paul later said he was humbled by the remembrance of his father.

“I’m so touched. He’s been gone for so long, and that people still remember him, it really means something. He would have been proud today,” Paul said.

Toward the end of the ceremonies, a shiny silver bell was struck with the fire departments' code by firefighter Keith Vaughn, the bell perched in a frame constructed by firefighter Bart Geldigan. VFW Post 6883 contributed a wall-hanging for the new firehouse, and Brother Randy Murphy of Primrose Baptist Church gave the closing benediction while the bells of nearby St. Joseph Catholic Church chimed the 11th hour of the day in the background.

As citizens swarmed through the former-gym-now-firehouse, they reminisced about its educational days and thought about its future days as a fire station. And one name repeatedly came up: Shirshekan.

Former mayor Sue Wilke, who was on hand during the early days of the school complex’s renovations overseen by Shirshekan, noted that Bonne Terre truly realizes how blessed they are with such a benefactor dedicated to his faith and to his work.

“When he has something in his head, it’s going to happen. He’s a genuine giving, Christian man and he’s really blessed Bonne Terre,” she said. “He gives all the credit, however, to God. He’s an incredible inspiration.”

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Sarah Haas is the assistant editor for the Daily Journal. She can be reached at 573-518-3617 or at shaas@dailyjournalonline.com

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