A firefighter, husband, father, Scout leader, proud American — Centreville's John Ward was all these things, and more.
He died last week at age 84, but he left an indelible mark on his community and in the hearts of those who knew and loved him.
"I have 53 years of memories," said his wife Claudette who lives in the Willow Springs community. "I miss him terribly, and I know I always will."
Ward was diagnosed with a form of leukemia, a year ago June, and it progressively got worse. He suffered a stroke, three months later, and then neuropathy affected the nerves in his legs, leaving him wheelchair-bound since last fall.
When he died last Thursday, Oct. 10, at Inova Fair Oaks Hospital, it was due to a combination of the leukemia and congestive heart failure. "The last six months or so, he had to have a blood transfusion, every three to four weeks," said his wife. "It caused some fluid buildup, but he was able to handle it, until the last time."
Ward even successfully battled pneumonia in July. "The doctors didn't expect him to come out of it," said Claudette. When he did, it enabled them to spend one last anniversary together. "On Aug. 29, our 53rd anniversary, we went to Ocean City," she said. "He was very ill, but he thoroughly enjoyed himself."
The couple met in 1948 when John and an acquaintance went to Claudette's house to offer their condolences after her grandfather died. His kindness and sense of humor attracted her. "He made me laugh and cheered me up, at a time when I needed it," she said.
They raised eight children — four boys and four girls, and John worked as a plumber and delivered propane gas. He joined the Centreville Volunteer Fire Department (Station 17) in 1954-55 and was a firefighter through the early '60s.
"John and I used to sign up for ambulance duty, every Thursday night, for years," said Centreville's Kenyon Davis. "I was chief of the fire department, and there were no paid people then, only volunteers. John was always willing to do whatever he was asked, and he was genuinely committed to doing the best he could."
They ran fire and rescue calls, pumped flooded basements — anything the community needed. And when a back injury later ended Ward's firefighting career, he simply switched gears and helped his wife and the other members of the station's Ladies Auxiliary.
"He never gave up working at the fire department," said Davis. "He was one of the finest people I knew. We lost a good friend — there's no question about that."
Whether doing administrative tasks, restocking the fund-raising soda machine in the station's bingo hall or carry countless bags of heavy groceries upstairs so Auxiliary members could prepare food for bingo and other fund-raisers, Ward "continued to support the fire department," said current Station 17 Chief Pete Kirby. "He had a strong sense of decency and dedication."
Hunter Hardware owner Roger Bostic was also a Station 17 volunteer. "John drove the trucks a lot," he recalled. "We went through fire school at [The College of] William and Mary in 1955-56. We had a lot of fun; the county didn't have a formal training program then." He said Ward was serious, precise and hardworking, as well as "very likable. He was a good friend — somebody you could trust — and a real family-man."
Another former firefighter there, Buck Whitmer, knew Ward for two decades. "We ran a lot of fire calls together and enjoyed what we were doing," he said. "John was a good man, down-to-earth, and he really served his community. And once he started something, he finished it. John will certainly be missed."
But friends and family saw that, in the past year, Ward's health really went downhill. "He suffered quite a bit — he had a lot of pain, discomfort and difficulty breathing," said Kirby. "For months, he walked a fine line between life and death, but he never complained."
Former Centreville resident Lewis Leigh knew Ward more than 30 years through each other's family, and both attended Centreville United Methodist Church (CUMC). Despite his illness, said Leigh, Ward was "a real fighter [who] remained positive. I always liked him; I'll miss his smile and the twinkle in his eyes. I'm sorry to see him go, but it was a blessing because he'd lost his quality of life."
Ward called him, six weeks ago, and they reminisced. "He knew the end was near, and he asked me to be one of his pallbearers," said Leigh. "I was honored."
Ward died at 5:55 a.m., and for a firefighter, said Kirby, those numbers have great significance. According to tradition, the first New York City firefighter ever to die in the line of duty did so while responding to a call from fire box 555.
"In those days, box alarms were transmitted to fire departments by means of bells, so three series of five bells each meant 555," explained Kirby. "Afterward, that box was retired and, since then, the signal 555 has always been used to signal the passing of a firefighter — so it's fitting that John died at 5:55."
He also noted that, right after Ward died, a fire alarm went off in the hospital, but no cause was ever found. Said Kirby: "I kinda think it was John [saying a final goodbye]."
Ward was also active in Scouting and served as liaison between Boy Scout Troop 893 and CUMC, which sponsored it. Three of his sons, Bill, Ted and Jimmy, were in 893, and Ward often went on camping trips with them. For years, he and Whitmer were troop leaders together, and he encouraged others to do likewise.
A member of CUMC for 52 years, Ward went to church every Sunday, "even when he didn't feel good," said his wife. "He brought dependability, consistency and faithfulness to everything," said the Rev. Bert Sikkelee. "'Be there, be on time and do your best' were his lessons to his children. He and Claudette shared a lifelong romance, and he had a sense of responsibility to his family and community."
Ward also belonged to the Historic Centreville Society and to the Fairfax County Historical Society, attending all their meetings and outings. Said Claudette: "People didn't realize he was sick because they always saw him at these things."
They had their share of tragedies — one son was paralyzed after an accident, and another, Jimmy, died at 17 in a motorcycle accident — but their marriage and family remained strong. John helped son Bill with his antique business and, in better days, he enjoyed going to antique shows and flea markets.
Ward also loved visiting his birthplace, Free Union (near Charlottesville), where his family lived since 1789 in an area called Ward's Creek. "We still have a farm there," said Claudette. "We'd visit his sister there, and we maintained the house after she died."
John's grandfather was a Confederate soldier in the Albemarle Artillery, and a few ancestors were members of the first Virginia House of Burgesses in 1619. "He's a quintessential Virginian," said Claudette. "He was buried with Virginia, Civil War buttons on his blazer and a Virginia pin and an American flag on his lapel."
She's no slouch, either. Active in civic and community organizations, Claudette was named the first Lady Fairfax when the Sully District began in 1992. And through everything, John cheered her on. "I'm very proud of him, and so are my children," she said. Three daughters and a son were at his bedside when he died; daughter Karen was holding his hand.
Funeral services were Saturday morning at CUMC, with Sikkelee officiating and a full house — including county Planning Commissioners Pete Murphy and Ron Koch — attending. Burial was at the Mount Moriah church cemetery in White Hall, near where Ward was raised. He's now surrounded by the Blue Ridge Mountains in a plot overlooking an apple orchard where, each fall, he and Claudette would get apples.
"He's buried in land owned by his ancestors," she said. His parents, two sisters and son are nearby. Claudette said his mind was sharp and clear until the end, and he hand-picked his pallbearers (including Leigh, Bostic and Davis) and his favorite hymn for the funeral service. And in honor of Ward's long years of service, a Station 17 fire truck led the funeral procession 100-some miles from Centreville to White Hall. Said Claudette: "I couldn't believe they did that."
Besides his wife, Ward is survived by sons John Jr., Bill and Ted and daughters Linda Mellott, Norma Apone, Karen Sica and Judy Harvey, 10 grandchildren, one stepgrandchild and great-granddaughter Shelby. Said Claudette: "She was born July 1, and he got to hold her in his arms." Memorial contributions may be made to CUMC or the Centreville Volunteer Fire Department.