LUMBERTON — At 16 years old, Lee Hester not only earned his licenses to fly and drive — in that order — he also acquired a lifelong love for volunteer service.
“It’s like it’s something I’m always supposed to do,” Hester said. “It’s just something I like to do. It doesn’t even seem like a job or anything, it’s just something fun.”
Today, as deputy commander at Lumberton Rescue & EMS, Hester spends about 20 hours a week “just handling maintenance of buildings, vehicles and equipment,” in addition to emergency responses.
“I don’t know if it’s fire trucks and little boys, but, you know, when we’d hear the siren, we’d run to the street,” he said.
Around 16 or 17 years old, Hester met his friend, Mickey Byrd, whose dad, Sam Byrd, was the fire chief for Lumberton. Sam taught fire service classes at volunteer fire departments.
“Sometimes, I would go with them,” Hester said. “I guess something in there stuck.”
The teenager soon began volunteering as a junior firefighter with the Northwoods Volunteer Fire Department.
Hester’s father’s work would place the young man in a position to make another influential friend — Danny Hickman.
“Here in Lumberton, my daddy was a flight instructor, and ran an aircraft maintenance business at the Lumberton Municipal Airport. I grew up flying,” Hester said. “My friend started taking flying lessons from my daddy, and we just hit it off on the friendship thing, and I asked him one day what he did.”
Hickman was the director of the Communications at the 911 center, “though back then it wasn’t called 911.”
Hickman showed him the dispatching ropes and Hester was hired part-time.
“I always seemed to work night shifts on Friday or Saturday night, so I’d go to school all day at the high school and then get off and go dispatch all night,” Hester said. “Then I left and went into the Navy.”
When he returned to Lumberton, Hester went right back to work at the Communications Center. Two years later, he was hired by Hickman to be a shift supervisor at the central, countywide 911 dispatch service in Wilson. True to form, Hester volunteered with Black Creek Volunteer Fire Department while in Wilson.
The birth of his first son prompted the return of his family to Lumberton and Hester resumed volunteer work with Northwoods Volunteer Fire Department.
After seven years as the city’s Communications director and another 17 years as the airport manager, Hester retired from his professional career in 2012, but he hasn’t hung up his hat on volunteer work. He continues to work with rescue — teaching at RCC, and continuing to volunteer with the rescue service.
Hester believes he has a few years of volunteer work left in him, but Lumberton Rescue Squad & EMS Commander Roger Taylor said he thinks “Lee will back off when we put him in the ground, or when he physically can’t do it any more.”
Even though Hester is Taylor’s “No. 1 guy,” Taylor looks up to Hester for his passion to serve.
“He’s an inspiration to me,” Taylor said.
Typically, Taylor said, getting department members to continue training and keep their skills up to par is a challenge to any administrator. Hester doesn’t hesitate to do what he needs to do, whether it’s responding to calls or going to training.
When training for swift water rescue, Hester was easily the oldest volunteer in attendance. Emotionally and physically, the training is demanding and intense.
“That water doesn’t forgive,” Taylor said. “And Lee jumped out there just like the rest of us.”
Hester isn’t alone in his family when it comes to volunteer work.
Hester said his wife, Candi, “wanted something we could do together, and she always wanted to go to nursing school, but she never did. She was a teacher.”
The couple earned their EMT certifications “and got our fire department, and we got on the rescue squad together,” Hester said.
Two of their sons also actively volunteer — Ryan is a city of Charlotte firefighter and a volunteer in Cabarrus County, and Andrew works full-time for the hospital ambulance service and is a volunteer with Lumberton Rescue Squad. Their third son, Harrison, has served on a mission trip to Africa.
Full retirement from his volunteer work is still a ways away, Hester said, and Candi fusses at him some about it.
“She said she had this big honey-do list for me to do,” he said. “I might have knocked out three things on it.”
Reach Juanita Lagrone at [email protected] or call 910-416-5865.