Hall County Fire Services veteran James Lancaster, 70, died Thursday, March 30, after 26 years of service to the fire department and a side career delighting all of Hall County with fantastic fireworks.
Lancaster was born Sept. 10, 1947, to Dr. Homer Harrison Lancaster and Lucy Hale Lancaster in Gainesville. He was raised in New Holland and married Carol Lancaster in 1995. They lived in Clermont at the time of his death.
His widow said Friday the department’s service to her husband “has just tore me up.”
Lancaster was taken with a sudden illness earlier this month, and in the few weeks he was in care, he received a constant stream of visitors from his days in Fire Services.
“When he passed last night, they refused to let Memorial Park come pick him up. They said, ‘Oh no, he’s ours,’” Carol Lancaster said, her voice breaking. “They sent their med unit, Med 7, which is where his headquarters always was, they sent Engine 7. A lot of the battalion chiefs and firemen and (fire)women were there and the family. They escorted him with a flag-draped (casket) over here to Memorial Park.
“It absolutely has just tore me up. I’m just so thankful I was grafted into the brethren and the sisters of the fire department. They have absolutely been the wind beneath my wings to hold me up for these past three weeks.”
In much of Lancaster’s time in the department, firefighters worked 24 hours on and took 24 hours off. Fire Services interim Chief Mark Arnold noted that in those days, firefighters spent half their lives with their co-workers.
Today’s shifts have changed: Firefighters work 24 hours and have 48 hours off to make it less grueling, but even that means they spend a third of their lives on duty.
After graduating from Truett-McConnell College and serving in the Navy, Lancaster spent seven years as a firefighter in Arlington, Virginia, before moving home to Hall County to work as a lieutenant for Hall County Fire Services.
Lancaster was a lieutenant for seven years before he made the jump to shift commander, according to Arnold. Shift commander was the precursor to the county’s current title of battalion chief. From 1987 to 2005, Lancaster managed every station and unit for the B shift, one of the county’s two shifts at the time.
He oversaw tremendous growth in his time as a shift commander, according to Arnold, as the department grew from fewer than 100 employees in 1979 to about 240 in 2005.
He was a tough boss, according to his wife and Arnold, and a dedicated firefighter.
“He wasn’t overbearing by any means, but he expected you to know your job, do your job and follow policies and procedures of the department,” Arnold said Friday.
Lancaster knew his job and lived for it.
“As he proposed to me, we talked with each other on what were our gives and takes,” Carol Lancaster said. “Mine to him was, ‘Don’t ever try to put me under your thumb.’ His to me was a surprise — he told me he had a mistress. I looked at him, and I said, ‘Really?’ And he said, ‘Yes, and it’s called the fire department.’ That’s exactly the way it was in his life.”
The man had his smaller joys: Scratch-off tickets, long vacations and spending time with family. But one interest developed into an avocation: Fireworks.
Lancaster handled fireworks displays in the county for years, organizing grand events for the Lion’s Club. His name is threaded throughout The Times’ coverage of these events and displays, always as a source on the nitty-gritty of pyrotechnics: How strontium and copper combine to sear the night purple; how the stars that burst to fill the sky start out as pellets that fit on a fingernail.
From building up a department to lighting up the night sky, Lancaster has left his mark on Hall County.
“He was much of a man,” said Carol Lancaster, her voice sure and steady.