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Community gathers in emotional ceremony for Riley's retirement

By KBell
Jan. 28, 2011 at 5:02 p.m.
Updated Jan. 27, 2011 at 7:28 p.m.

Victoria Fire Department Chief Vance Riley

Victoria Fire Station No. 4 was crowded and silent as bagpipes pierced through the tense emotion.

In the front row, Fire Chief Vance Riley shook his head as if to shake off the "bittersweet" feelings of his retirement.

"I was just kidding about those bagpipes," Riley said in a speech that provoked just as many laughs as tears.

Family, friends, city leaders and the department Riley has led for nearly 16 years gathered Friday afternoon to honor the 49-year-old.

"Some people tell me I'm too young to retire. Yes I am. I'm retiring from the Victoria Fire Department because at my age, I'll never be able to work that long for anyone else," he said. "I can tell you after a month of vacation of eating bonbons, watching 'All My Children' and a fishing adventure I care not to recite, I'm going to have to go back to work or be crazy."

On more emotion-filled passages, Riley thanked his wife - the best "First Lady Fire Chief" - his family and co-workers and mentioned he was most proud of the relationships the department has made.

"The relationship building between this department and other agencies, and most importantly, the relationships we built within the department," were his greatest accomplishments, he said.

While battalion chiefs Roger Hempel and Shannon Martin agreed, they had other praise as well.

"When he became fire chief here, one of his top priorities was safety," Martin said. "To me, that was one of the most important things the chief did - that he was able to recognize that need."

Several people mentioned Riley's leadership throughout the transition to a combined fire and EMS department in 1995, when Riley first arrived.

"He had a vision, and he didn't back down," Hempel said of Riley throughout his tenure. "We're happy for him. We hate to see him leave, but we're looking forward to the future."

Riley's looking out for the department's future as well, offering them a final piece of advice.

"Please don't compare me with the next fire chief when he or she gets here. that's not fair to them, and that's not fair to me," he said in his speech. "Give them a lot of time before judging them. Let them come here and be your leader."

After being awarded plaques from the city, the Civilian Fire Academy and the Texas Fire Chiefs Association, Riley's department presented him with a white firefighter's helmet, calling it a symbol of his leadership.

"I will always be your chief, your co-worker, your friend," Riley said near the end of his speech. His teary eyes fixed on the crowd of uniformed men and women, Riley concluded, "Once Victoria Fire, always Victoria Fire. Don't you forget it."

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