May 31, 2006 will be remembered as the day the singing stopped at the Alexandria Fire Department. After 34 years, Callie M. Terrell, administrative assistant to the Chief, will no longer be at her desk on the second floor of departmental headquarters, 900 Second St.
"I did pretty good with the Fire Department. But, you know when it's time to move on. And, I'm just tired after 34 years in the same place," Terrell said last week as she sat at the small conference table in Chief Gary Mesaris' office.
"I still love the fire department and I still love my firefighters out in the field. I've watched many of them grow up," she said.
A native Alexandrian, Terrell joined the department on March 13, 1972. Married to Alfonzo Terrell, nicknamed "Butch," a District of Columbia homicide detective, Callie realized one day that she was bored being a housewife and decided to get a job.
"Butch came in off the midnight shift and I was dressed and ready to go out. He asked where I was going and I said I'm going to get a job," Terrell explained.
She went to Kelly Employment Services, paid them $500, and they sent her to the Alexandria Fire Department. "Fire Chief Milton Penn hired me," she said.
"When I was being interviewed they asked me if I had a baby sitter for my kids. I said yes. Then I went home and got my next door neighbor on Quaker Lane to be that baby sitter," Terrell said. "In those days they could ask you those kinds of questions."
Callie and Butch were married in 1968. They have three grown children — Kendra, 38; Nechelle, 37; and Damon, 28 — all reside in the Washington Metropolitan area. Butch retired from the DC Police Department in 1993. He is now a supervisor for the Court Security Marshals.
"I came to the department as a clerk typist. But, you name it and I've had the title. I've done it all," she said.
THAT WAS EASILY verified by those that have served with her over the past three decades. "When Callie leaves the whole fabric of the department will change. Callie was here when I started," said Captain Thurston Maclean.
"She covers from the oldest to the youngest. When nobody can get something done, she does. We'll all continue to call on her. We all have a personal connection with her and everyone is connected through her," he said.
That assessment was buttressed by former Alexandria Fire Chief Thomas Hawkins. "She has everyone's respect because she is very honest and up front. When she would go on vacation she used to send a memo to the City Manager that it was okay for me to be acting chief while she was away," Hawkins remembered with a chuckle.
When Mesaris replaced Hawkins upon the latter's retirement, Terrell provided him with continuity in his new position. "I've known Callie since before I came here. She has kept me on the right path. She's the consummate professional. With her knowledge of all the people and the department her retirement is going to be a great loss," Mesaris said.
Former Deputy Chief James Gower noted, "Callie's faith is very important to her and it's not for show. She practices it every day. She has always been very good a handling problems. She is the Fire Department."
THERE IS ALSO a Callie Terrell before and outside the Alexandria Fire Department. Growing up in the 300 block of North Patrick Street, she attended St. Joseph's Parochial School from first through seventh grades and then attended St. Mary's on Green Street for eighth grade only.
"I was really looking forward to attending Parker Gray High School. We all were. Then they integrated it and I only spent one year there — ninth grade. Tenth, 11th and 12th grades were at George Washington High School where I graduated in 1966," Terrell said.
Following graduation she attended the American Business Institute in DC. "I was working for the Department of Defense at Cameron Station at the same time," she said. Then she met Butch, got married, had three children, and became a housewife until 1972.
However, ever since her childhood, Callie Terrell has had another love in her life — singing. "My singing is my life. I'm singing all the time. I came from a singing family," she said.
Terrell sings in the St. Joseph's Catholic Church Gospel Choir, with the City Employees Choir, of which she is a founder, with the Sisters in Christ of Northern Virginia, at Salvation Army events, for all Fire Department graduations and memorial services, and at a wide range of events throughout the area. Last year she traveled to France with the City Employees Choir to perform at various venues.
"I was in a play at the Arena Stage in the 1980's called "The Gospel at Colomus." It was a story about a whole family of singers," she said. Terrell performs solo concerts at various events and charity fundraisers.
"I started singing the National Anthem at the Police Academy in the 1980's when the Fire and Police departments were combined for 18 months," she said. Her a cappella rendering of the National Anthem is sought by organizations area wide.
"When I started the Valor Awards 20 years ago I got Callie to sing the National Anthem and she has done it at that event every year since. She is one of the kindest, gentlest people I have ever known," said Norman Grimm Sr., a volunteer fireman for 38 years and a retired Alexandria Police Department Captain.
"She is a beautiful person inside and out with a beautiful voice to match. She also has stature throughout the community and among all city employees," said Janet Barnett, deputy director, Program Operations, Alexandria Recreation, Parks & Cultural Activities Department.
"When I got married I invited only eight people to my wedding. Callie was one of them. She is the continuity from the 1970's to today. She'll be remembered for years," said Jane Davidson Malik, public information officer, Alexandria Fire Department, who's office is right next to Callie's. Terrell considers she and Malik the department's events coordinators.
Terrell has never had any professional vocal training. "I listen to people who give advice on breathing techniques and other elements of singing. Then I practice them when I'm driving alone," she said.
"I've been singing since I was a little girl. Back then my grandmother, who raised me, called it noise. I don't get paid to sing, except at weddings. I figure if they can pay everybody else, they can pay for the singing," said Terrell.
"We had this group of young girls when I was in high school who got together to sing popular music. There was this adult couple who thought we were good enough to make it on Motown. When I told my mother she said no way was I going to get mixed up with that Motown bunch," she remembered.
But she did get a taste of what it's like to be on the road as a professional entertainer. "When I was singing with this one group we went on a two-week tour of all the black southern colleges, then we went to the Apollo Theater in New York City. I was so glad to get home. I had no more desire for Motown. I get more out of singing for people here than all my other singing experiences," Terrell said.
THEN LAST YEAR things changed for Terrell that convinced her it was time to retire. Like most turning points in life it was both a blessing and a curse. Like the old Chinese proverb, "May you live in interesting times."
The good part is that Callie and Butch finally got their dream house after living in Bren Mar Park, Fairfax County, for 25 years. The bad part is it's in Dumfries, Southbridge on The Potomac. That meant facing the dreaded I-95 traffic everyday.
"I've always come to work. No matter what the weather. No matter what because I've always lived here and if it was bad weather somebody could come and get me and take me home," she said.
"We couldn't afford to buy our dream house here in Alexandria. We couldn't even afford to buy the house I was raised in here," she said. "Then Butch found this place in Dumfries."
But, after a year of commuter traffic, Terrell could just not face it for another year to get to her 35th anniversary. "The commute is one hour and fifteen minutes on a work day. And that is if nothing happens," she said. "One day last week I was on the road about 15 minutes when everything just stopped — total gridlock. I said that's it. Not today. I turned around, went back home and relaxed."
She has also achieved another goal in the past five years. She has lost 101 pounds after being diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. "The doctor said losing weight would help so I just did it. It's not easy but it can be done with the proper diet and exercise," she said. It has definitely helped, she verified.
June 1, 2006, Callie Terrell starts phase four of a very full life. "I've got some things I really want to do," she said. Butch is also a lay Baptist minister who travels to various congregations and Callie plans to travel more with him.
"I'm thinking about doing some recording. I have some friends who sing and we're going to put together a group to sing at retirement homes, nursing homes and other places," she said.