Leel named firefighter of year
American Legion recognizes fire chief with award for his 44 years of service to town
MANCHESTER — When he was 14 years old, David Leel of New Ipswich joined the Fire Department as a volunteer junior firefighter. Forty-four years later, he is still serving the community — only now as the elected fire chief. Having worked his way through the ranks, seeing the town through arson fires in the early 1990s and the crippling ice storm of 2008, he was recognized Friday by the American Legion as Fire Fighter of the Year.
Even though he joined the department at a young age, he said that as a child it was never a great aspiration of his to become a firefighter. His father and two brothers were part of the department, and at the time, family friend Sulo Kolapacka was the chief. Instead, it was a position he fell into. Even as he became a full-time member and worked his way through the ranks, he said he never set out to become fire chief.
As a result, said Deputy Chief Meredith Lund, Leel’s leadership process is very collaborative, with most decisions made jointly between herself, her fellow Deputy Chief Gary Somero and Leel. The shelf life of a career firefighter usually isn’t very long, said Lund in an interview Monday. Usually, after half the amount of time on the department that Leel has put in, people begin to burn out, and look for other ways to volunteer. But Leel has stuck it out through it all, she said.
“In an industry where after 20 years people are looking to retire, Chief Leel still has a passion for the community and for the fire department,” she said. “As times change, he changes and adapts with them.”
In fact, the American Legion contacted Leel in January after the department had dealt with a devastating house fire in New Ipswich that destroyed the home of Beth and Richard Prince, and killed the couple’s son, Joshua Prince, and grandson, Gregory Prince Jr. The group was seeking award nominations for someone on the New Ipswich Fire Department. Leel said that the team as a whole was invaluable, and there was no way he could pick just one individual to nominate for the award. Instead, his deputies nominated Leel for the honor. And even after winning it, department unity is still his mantra.
“I don’t go in big for personal recognition,” Leel said in a phone interview Monday. “I’m very proud and pleased to have won, of course. But when I accepted the award, I said that as an individual, I don’t deserve this award. It’s because of the dedication and hard work of this department that I’m eligible. The plaque has my name, but it also says ‘New Ipswich Fire Department,’ and I really feel that this is their award.”
One of Leel’s most significant achievements on the department was the amount of time and effort he puts into nurturing the next generation of firefighters, said Lund. Leel has been extremely supportive of the Firefighter I program that is run through Mascenic High School. Leel served on the committee to initiate the certification program, and still chairs the committee that runs it. He also installed the New Ipswich Fire Fighter Explorer Program in 2006, shortly after he became fire chief, to help facilitate the training of young firefighters. “He really took that Explorer post on, and there’s at least 10 kids in that program now,” Lund said. “He has a real dedication to our youth, and passing on the passion of fire fighting to them. I really think he has a heart for that generation and the younger kids. He loves working with them.”
Leel also notably helped lead the Emergency Response Teem during the 2008 ice storm, when the town was without power for 19 days, and helped the town replace its fire tanker through federal grant awards.
American Legion members awarded Leel the Firefighter of the Year Award in a ceremony in Manchester on Friday. He accepted the award on behalf of the New Ipswich Fire Department.
Ashley Saari can be reached at 924-7172 ext. 244 or firstname.lastname@example.org. She’s on Twitter at @AshleySaari.