Thousands of vehicles rumble through tiny Blitchton and nearby Black Creek every day these days, headed somewhere or another.
If they’re on Highway 280, they’ll run past Fire Station No. 8 at the Bryan County Interstate Centre, which is named in honor of J.C. Tucker.
Most who drive past that station, or Station 4 nearby on Highway 80, will likely never know the story of Tucker.
But those who knew him, and those who fought fires with him, say he was one of the most remarkable men ever to call Bryan County home.
Some even thought he’d live forever.
“We expect some people to never die,” Bryan County Fire and Emergency Services Battalion Chief Victoria Pape said in a Facebook post in June, shortly after Tucker died from injuries, he sustained in a car wreck at the age of 95. “They’re supposed to live forever.”
Pape was Tucker’s partner; he was her mentor as one of many firefighters he took under his wing over a volunteer firefighting career that began out of necessity and continued up until the day he died.
“He was definitely a firefighter’s firefighter,” said Bryan County Emergency Services Chief Freddy Howell.
And more than that, he was of a time when people were self-reliant and made do with what they had.
Jasper Clayton Tucker, born Oct. 25, 1925 in Claxton, and the son of Erastus Tucker and Fannie Barrow, was armed only with a second-grade education yet by all accounts was a gifted mechanic and hard worker who in his teens helped haul dirt to build Hunter Army Airfield.
A Cliff Note’s version, to help move the story along: At 19, Tucker moved to Blitchton. That was in 1944. He married Sara Edenfield in 1946. They were together 51 years until she passed in 1997, and was famous for her kindness and her pound cake.
Tucker’s story includes the jobs he held at Galletta Ironworks in the Savannah Shipyard and later as a shop foreman for Ford Motor Company in Brooklet and Duke Ford in Pembroke, according to his niece, Annette Youmans. He opened J.C. Tucker Garage and Wrecker Service in 1953, and later added a parts store.
By then he had already moved his parents and his siblings, including his brother Wilton, out to Blitchton.
He was a provider, his brother said, someone who took care of others.
“He had a shop in back of his house then,” Wilton said, in an interview conducted on behalf of this newspaper by his daughter Annette and her husband, Mickey Youmans, a documentary filmmaker. “I would tear things down for him while he worked at the Ford place, and when he came home, he would fix them. Sometimes he’d work on fixing things until 12 o’clock at night and then get back up to work at the Ford place the next morning.”
On top of that, Tucker drove a wrecker himself, and many of the wrecks he responded to involved people he knew. Seeing what those wrecks would do to people wasn’t easy.
“In those early days there were no seat belts or air bags,” Annette said.
Recollections of those long-ago days say a fire at the Ogeechee Restaurant on Highway 80 in the early 1970s led Tucker to start the Blitchton Volunteer Fire Department.
“They had a fire down there, and there was no fire department around to put it out,” Wilton recalled. “He decided he was going to start a fire department, so the first thing he did was build a fire truck. He got the tank from somebody and put it on a truck.”
The truck came from Bryan County, and the tank and pump came from Georgia Forestry, according to published reports. The fire department ran calls out Tucker Auto Parts, which still exists to this day. Along the way, Tucker poured his blood, sweat and treasure into the department.
Between fire calls and wrecker calls and his job as a mechanic, Tucker essentially stayed on duty 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for decade after decade.
“It wasn’t until he was in his 90s that he quit driving the tanker truck,” Mickey Youmans said. “That’s pretty impressive.”
Also impressive was Tucker’s knowledge of where to find water, his brother said.
With fire hydrants few and far between in rural Bryan County, once the tanker truck ran out of water, firefighters would have to know where to find more and pump it into the tanker, then return to finish fighting the fire.
Victoria Pape’s husband, Capt. Ben Pape of the Effingham County Fire Department, said Tucker knew every ditch, creek and pond in Bryan County where water could be found.
And then there was his determination that Blitchton’s volunteer firefighters did things right and got all the training they could. Tucker, who by every account led by example, never stopped learning and even became certified by NOAA to make judgement calls regarding weather. He was 80 at the time.
And, perhaps because of his experiences driving his wrecker to the mangled remains of cars belonging to people he knew, Tucker’s department was among the first in Bryan County to have extrication equipment on site.
“He wanted that on his truck at all times,” Howell recalled, noting when firefighters went through Station 4 recently, they found a lot of certificates and records showing just how devoted Tucker was to ensuring his department was up to date.
He was, Annette said, a believer in honesty and doing things the right way, which included such details as keeping the grass around the station mowed to a certain standard. That inspired and enamored him to firefighters like Pape, a friendly woman who politely declined interviews after his passing saying she felt Tucker’s loss too keenly.
“When I got here, I presented him with a firefighter’s ax on his 90th birthday,” said Howell, who took over BCFES in 2012. “And to me he was more active at the age of 90 than some volunteers. If we had a call up there, he’d take the tanker and be at the fire within minutes. And he went out and mowed the grass at Station 4 up until his dying day.”
Tucker’s obituary lists all those who went before him and those who remain behind, including his longtime “companion and fishing partner” Mandy Boyette. It notes he enjoyed camping and fishing and that “he was a mentor to many and always treated people the way he wanted to be treated.” Now, as future plans to modernize and staff Station 4 begin to take some shape, Howell said he hopes to dedicate that station to Tucker as well.
“He was a firefighter to his last day, to his last breath,” Howell said. “He was not a volunteer just when he wanted to be, he was a volunteer firefighter every day until till his dying breath.”
It’s an example of caring about community that remains a beacon for those who knew him best.
“Your legacy will live on,” Pape wrote in her Facebook post. “To know you was an honor.”