Troy firefighters visit fellow firefighter turning 100

By: Terry Oparka | Troy Times | Published September 10, 2014

 Former Highland Park Fire Chief Jerry Howell, center, celebrates his 100th birthday with family, friends and members of Troy Fire Station 5 at his daughter’s home in Troy Sept. 6.

Former Highland Park Fire Chief Jerry Howell, center, celebrates his 100th birthday with family, friends and members of Troy Fire Station 5 at his daughter’s home in Troy Sept. 6.

Photo by Sarah Purlee


Jerry Howell, 100, who was a 38-year firefighter for the city of Highland Park and who retired as chief, is a familiar sight on Dayton Drive, where he stays at the home of his daughter, Joyce Howell, during the summer months.

Joyce has lived in Troy since 1972.

“Our neighborhood is pretty close,” Joyce said. “He’s pretty well-known by the neighbors.”

So it was no surprise that the neighborhood turned out in force to celebrate Jerry’s 100th birthday Sept. 6.

But it was a surprise to Joyce, Jerry and Marcy Dennis, who also lives with the Howells, when another force stopped by to help Jerry celebrate 100 years.

Family friend Cathy Rowan, of Sterling Heights, met Joyce when Rowan worked as a travel agent. The women, and later their families, became friends. Rowan’s six daughters consider Joyce to be an aunt, Rowan said.

Rowan wanted to help honor Jerry and wondered if the Troy Fire Department would help the career firefighter celebrate his 100th birthday.

“Turning 100 is a milestone. He’s a very special man in his church (Highland Park Baptist Church, now based in Southfield) and the community,” she said.

So she sent an email to Troy Fire Chief Bill Nelson to ask if the Troy Fire Department would consider stopping by Jerry’s party, and Rowan said Nelson responded immediately.

“Within a couple hours, Capt. Phil Thor from Station 5 called me and said they would love to come out with their fire truck,” Rowan said.

Rowan told Dennis and Joyce to expect a surprise, but she didn’t divulge what it was.

“I had to get everyone out on the front lawn,” she said.

“They (the firefighters) were very respectful and said thank you (to Jerry) for your service,” Rowan said. “Everyone was crying.”

When Jerry graduated from Highland Park High School and Highland Park Junior College in the 1930s, “jobs were at a premium,” Jerry said. “You were lucky to get a job.”

He took the civil service test, earned the top score on the exam, and took a job on the Highland Park Fire Department. He and his family moved to Highland Park from Brazil, Indiana, when Jerry was in the seventh grade.

“We didn’t have that many men,” Jerry said. He explained that everyone did whatever they were assigned to do.

“If they needed somebody to scrub a floor, you scrubbed the floor,” he said.

He was hired on the force just before Christmas in 1936.

“I had to work Christmas. You took what they gave you,” he said.  “You didn’t get time off. You filled in whatever assignment.”

As assistant chief, he helped battle a big fire at Sanders Bakery Distribution Warehouse on Oakman Boulevard, although his family is not sure what year that happened. The building burned again in 2012.

“There was a lot of smoke — it was tougher to fight,” he said. He also fought a fire at the Highland Theater on Christmas Day.  Again, exactly what year the blaze occurred was not known.

Jerry married his wife, Helen, after he got his job with the Fire Department, and they raised their two daughters, Joyce and Jacqueline Sawicki. Sawicki now lives in Florida. Jerry stays with her during the winter months.

Helen passed away in 2005. She and Jerry were married 68 years.

Joyce said her father attributes his longevity to his strong faith in God. She said her father never drank alcohol or smoked, and he was physically active most of his life. He played many sports.

“He golfed and drove until he was 97,” she said. “He was always physically active.”

She said he also enjoys crossword and jigsaw puzzles.

“He always led by example,” she said, noting that he was quick to help someone in need. “He always has a smile. He loves his family (two grandchildren and four great-grandchildren) and friends.”

“We’re still in tears when we think about it,” she said of the Troy firefighters’ visit with her father on his birthday.

Jerry said he was just glad to be part of the fire service for all those years.

“Jobs were hard to get,” he said.