EUREKA -- Randy Gray grew up around the Faro Fire Station.
He recalls sitting in the old store next to the station with the men who were in the fire department, including his father, Jimmy Gray.
"The whistle would go off and my father was on the department, and we would all go to the fire," said Gray. He was honored earlier this month as recipient of the Edgar G. Summerlin Award as Wayne County Firefighter of the Year.
Those experiences, along with attending fire meetings and eating fish stew with the firefighters at the station, set him on the path to becoming not only a firefighter, but a leader in the fire service and his community.
And being in the fire service is just like anything else Gray gets involved in -- he wants to be on the front row and actively involved.
An old saying reflects how Gray said he has always looked at life -- "Some people are followers. Some people are leaders. If you are not going to lead, then get out of the way."
"I just didn't want to be a firefighter. At some point, I wanted to be chief, and lo and behold I have held them all," he said Wednesday while siting on the rear of a firetruck at Northeast Fire Station No. 1.
"I can still fight fires. I still train with the boys. If I have to, I go in, but I don't need to. I am 53 years old."
Gray said he has enough common sense to know that the younger firefighters need to do that job.
"Being a volunteer firefighter is like being a real active member of the church or real active member in anything that you volunteer," he said. "It just takes a special kind of person to volunteer.
"I don't know, just serving the community, serving the people -- there is just a good feeling when somebody says thank you. You ain't doing it for the pay. You are doing it because you want to."
The Edgar G. Summerlin Award has been presented by the Wayne County Firefighters Association to outstanding firefighters since 1975, with the first recipient being Summerlin himself.
The award was named in honor of Summerlin, who was an integral part of improving Wayne County's firefighting services. He served as Mount Olive fire chief for many years.
The past five award recipients serve on the committee and select the winner from the nominees.
Wayne County Fire Marshal Blair Tyndall was chairman this year and presented the award earlier this month.
He and Gray grew up together.
"He started naming off things this person has done, that this person is involved in numerous boards," Gray said. "I thought, 'I've done that.' He said this person helped expand their department. I said, 'Well, we expanded our department at Faro.' We added onto the building."
Tyndall went on to say the winner had helped secure new equipment and improve the department's fire rating. Gray said he thought again that Faro had done that.
"My wife (Lee) was sitting beside me, and I looked at her, and I was like, 'Damn, sounds like he is talking about me, but it can't be me,'" Gray said. "He said he (winner) serves active now as chairman of the training committee for the county, and I am (chairman).
"I looked at her and said, 'That's me.' It was humbling. I was very humbled."
Gray said he has had good people to help him get to where he is.
What makes a good chief are good people who work with them, he said.
Gray joined the fire service around 1983-84 -- some 34 years ago.
"I started with Faro," he said. "I started down there as a fireman. I worked my way through the ranks -- lieutenant, captain, assistant chief, chief. I have been president, vice president. I have been some of everything, and now I am president of Northeast."
Northeast was formed in 2014 when Faro and Eureka fire departments merged. Mike Brock was chief at Eureka at the time, and Gray was chief at Faro.
"It was decided when we did the merger one of us would be chief, and the other would be president," Gray said. "But I have done it all down here."
Gray said he can't remember the first fire call he went on.
"Lord no," he said. "I really don't."
But one still sticks out in his mind -- the fire that destroyed the old Eureka school around 10 years ago.
"It was just so big a fire and so many departments," he said. "It seemed like we had departments from all over the county. It was just the biggest structure we had in the two districts, and it was on fire. Luckily, it was abandoned.
"That is probably the biggest. We have some big houses and whatnot and have been in some hot spots and had loss of life."
Gray said there has never been a house fire that he has been in that he wasn't scared.
"When you go in somewhere and you can't see, you can't do nothing but feel, it's scary," he said. "If anybody tells you they haven't been scared, they are lying. If we were in a house fire and smoke won't so bad enough that you couldn't see, I was OK.
"But when you can't see, it's scary. It's scary."
Gray said there is no telling how many hours he has spent training in his nearly 35 years in the fire service. Just this past year he completed 109 hours.
But he is quick to point out that he is not the only firefighter to complete so many hours of training.
Overall, the Northeast members put in around 2,800 training hours this past year, he said.
Gray said he is uncertain where the future leads in the fire service and volunteer service in Wayne County because "the volunteers ain't volunteering no more."
The young members on the department are good, but the young people just aren't coming in as they did in the past, Gray said.
Efforts are made to keep their interest up, such as training and new equipment, but there is just a lot more that has to be done to keep the younger generation interested, he said.
"It is not just here at Northeast, it is all over the county," he said. "There are a lot of us my age, 40 and above, we'd love to be staying at home now," he said. "I am speaking for everybody in the whole county because it is like a brotherhood that I grew up with."
Gray said that over the past 20 years he has been more active in the association serving as vice president in 2011 and president in 2012.
Over those years of involvement in the association, Gray said members his age have seen one another every month for the past 20 years.
They have heard what is going on there and here and seen each other grow old, he said.
But they continue to do the same things they did 20 years ago, he said.
"And it's like, we are ready for somebody else," he said. "I don't know what is going to happen in the next five years in fire service.
"I can see the county having to step up and maybe some more mergers being done and more paid people being put around the county, especially for daytime services."
The Grays have two adult sons, Zeke Jackson and Scott Jackson.
Gray and his older brother Robert, who is retired from the fire service, farm. They have chicken houses, hog houses, a fish facility where tilapia are raised, about 300,000 pounds annually, and 60 head of cattle.
Gray is a member of Wayne County Firefighters Association, Wayne County Cattlemen Association board, president of the Wayne County Wildlife Club, president of the N.C. Aquaculture Association and a member of the N.C. Aquaculture Development Conference.