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Dynamic duos
Fathers blaze trail for sons
Greg and Tony Chapman
Greg and Tony Chapman - photo by Emily Saunders
They may not have Dalmations or fireman’s poles, but for members of the Forsyth County Fire Department, at least one tradition remains.

Fire Capt. Jason Shivers said the practice of firefighters following in their fathers’ footsteps is a custom the department is proud to observe.

“The American fire service is steeped in tradition,” Shivers said. “Families with multiple generations of firefighters are certainly not uncommon, and in the Forsyth County Fire Department we are honored to have these families serving the citizens of the community.”

Russell and Zach Buice, Tony and Greg Chapman, Dwight and Matt Clark, Gerry and Robbie Major and John Weisgerber Jr. and John Weisgerber III are local examples of how the commitment to public service has been passed down from father to son.

The Forsyth County News recently caught up with four of the firefighter families to talk about their lives, both on and off the job.

The Buices

Firefighter Russell Buice started volunteering in 1980 with what was then called the Forsyth County Fire Protection Committee. He retired as a lieutenant with Gwinnett County after 25 years of service and works part time in Forsyth.

His locker at Station 1 bears the moniker “Daddy Buice.”

His grandfather was a captain with the city of Atlanta Fire Department.

“It’s much more professional now, much more organized,” Buice said. “People are held more accountable now for their actions, more so than in the old days.”

Buice’s son, Forsyth County Fire Lt. Zach Buice, also works part time for Roswell and volunteers for Dawson County.

Russell Buice said his son is “making his own footsteps.”

“It bothered me when he first went in because I knew what he’d be dealing with,” he said. “You deal with death, you deal with people getting hurt, injured, losing their homes. It makes quite an impact on you, especially when children are involved.”

As fathers, both men agreed that responding to incidents involving children can take a toll.

“That’s something you just never forget,” Russell Buice said. “I hate it that he has to go through that, but he’ll muddle through it like I did.”

Russell Buice said he plans to retire from the fire service next month when he turns 55, though that won’t keep him from stopping by for the occasional chat over a cup of coffee.

“It’s a young man’s game,” he said.

Zach Buice said he remembers riding a fire truck as a child and visiting the station where his dad worked.

This year, the father of 7-month-old Ava Maddalen is celebrating his first Father’s Day.

“Usually you wind up working holidays and birthdays and if it happens to be your day off, great,” Zach Buice said. “I don’t work [today], so I’m sure we’ll do something.”

The Chapmans

Forsyth Fire Lt. Greg Chapman joked that he entered the fire service because that’s what he was told to do.

The truth, he said, is that he never doubted he’d be a firefighter like his father, Battalion Chief Tony Chapman.

“That’s the only thing I ever planned on doing,” he said.

Tony Chapman went to work on an ambulance after high school.

“I slowly went broke and went into engineering,” he said.

Fifteen years later, he came back to full-time fire service.

“Once it’s in your blood, it’ll stay there,” he said. “I started volunteering with Forsyth County in 1993, so by chance Greg grew up with it and it got in his blood at a very early age.”

But the Chapman men aren’t the only ones in their family with a taste for fighting fires and saving lives.

“Greg’s mother volunteered for Forsyth for a few years,” the older Chapman said. “So it was a family affair.”

Greg Chapman served for a year as a volunteer firefighter before going pro.

While they share a name and a profession, father and son agree they approach the job differently.

“We all have our styles and the way we do things and that’s fine as long as the same results come out of it,” Tony Chapman said.

He said he doesn’t worry about his son when he’s out in the field.

“He’s made his way up to lieutenant and he’s got a good head on his shoulders,” the elder Chapman said. “As a chief officer, I listen out a lot, but I know he knows how to do his job.”

Tony Chapman explained that fire department policy prohibits family members from working under another’s command. Both men will work today, but on different shifts.

Though he can't work under his father’s supervision, Greg Chapman said his co-workers still playfully tease him and often call him “Little C” or “Chappy.”

The Chapmans have followed other fire traditions as well.

When Greg Chapman made lieutenant, his parents gave him a leather helmet, which is a time-honored fire service symbol.

After his wedding earlier this month, he and his new bride rode away on a fire truck.

The Clarks

Matt Clark is a third-generation firefighter.

His grandfather joined the fire service in 1940 at an Air Force base in Texas. He and his father, Deputy Fire Chief Dwight Clark, joined Forsyth County’s department in 2001.

As of July, Dwight Clark will have 50 years of service under his boots.

“I didn’t invent [fire], I was there for the second one,” he joked.

Firefighting wasn’t Matt Clark’s first choice, but it didn’t take long for him to find his way.

“Before that I was working in paving and asphalt in the summertime,” he said. “If you never know what you want to do with your life, do paving and asphalt in the summertime. You’ll figure it out real quick.”

After talking with them for just a minute, it’s easy to see the Clarks share a sense of humor.

Matt Clark didn’t flinch about how his fellow firefighters tease him “ruthlessly” and jokingly call him “baby chief” or “the mole.” He said he is often accused of telling his father secrets he hears at work.

“Which is not true,” Dwight Clark said. “I hear more from the other guys and gals than I ever hear out of Matt.”

The elder Clark didn’t hesitate to tell a story about a recent fire at his son’s house.

“There’s nothing sadder than a guy’s pickup burning up,” Matt Clark said.

He had just returned home from a part-time job in Tucker and had been asleep about two hours when his wife woke him up. After seeing the blaze, he told her to call 911.

“I went outside and started yanking stuff out of the truck and then I got a visit from my buddies at Station 7,” Matt Clark said. “I pulled the line off the engine and they fired it up. They really took care of us.”

Just this past week, Matt Clark’s year-old daughter Elizabeth Grace made her first false 911 call. The men joked they’re blaming the incident on the girl’s mother.

“Things like that you don’t live down,” Matt Clark said. “You just make friends with it.”

Before coming to Forsyth, the Texas natives worked at the Georgia Fire Academy. Dwight Clark is a well-known expert on vehicle rescue and his son has joined him when instructing courses on the subject.

“I like teaching, but I think right now I’m focusing on being the best firefighter I can in the station, getting the job done and going home and being a dad,” Matt Clark said. “I’m not sure if I can fill his shoes.”

The Majors

Fire Inspector Robbie Major was a child when Parsons store, then located in downtown Cumming, burned.

He remembers sitting with his mother on the Forsyth County Courthouse steps watching his father, Capt. Gerry Major, and other volunteer firefighters try to put out the blaze.

The business has since relocated and the Majors’ dedication to serving their community still burns bright.

Gerry Major was one of 38 firefighters that started what was an all-volunteer department in 1972. Major said at that time, the volunteers raised funds for fire trucks through chicken suppers and candy sales. Labor and materials also were donated.

“Back in the old days, you had to use your own vehicle," Major said. "So if he and my wife were with me and I had to go to a wreck or something, they went too.

"Back then we had to furnish our own transportation to and from and meet the fire truck there, so he got exposed to a lot of traumatic situations at an early age.”

But Robbie Major’s childhood wasn’t always about fires and car crashes. He said he loved riding the fire truck in Cumming’s July Fourth parade and called it “the highlight of the summer.”

Like his dad, Robbie Major also entered the fire service as a volunteer because it was “a good, honorable thing to do.”

“I looked up to dad when I was a kid,” he said. “He was my hero and I wanted to be like him.”

He began while he was a senior at South Forsyth High School, along with two of his friends.

“I’d be looking at my dad and supposed to be home at curfew when I was on a fire or emergency call and say, ‘Yeah, I’m going to be late,’” he said.

A beaming Gerry Major said he sees a lot of himself in his son.

“He’s me 20 years ago,” he said.

E-mail Julie Arrington at