MEXICO — Gary Wentzell, who served as Mexico’s fire chief for 25 years, lost his fight to cancer Sunday.

The basement of the fire station Sunday evening was filled with firefighters and others, many of them wearing blue shirts with the words “Wentzell Strong.”

There were many tears and hugs, followed by sharing of the numerous experiences that they had shared with their chief. Members of the Wentzell family joined the firefighters shortly after returning from the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston.

“He wasn’t just a fire chief, especially to me,” firefighter Mike Chartier said. “He was like another father. Not just Fire Department stuff, but my personal life. He’d come down for anything. I know I’ve been through a lot with him. Right down to the end, he was concerned about what was going on.”

“We’d always have fun, but when that bell goes off, it’s all business,” firefighter Mat Theriault said. “That’s the way he taught us, how he allowed it. That’s the way we did it. We were just close. Everybody wanted to be here.

“Everything we do, we’ll think about him,” he said.

In February 2014, the department dedicated a recently acquired firetruck Wentzell had worked to get. The number on the truck was 23 — the same number of years that he had served as fire chief at that time.

“Should we retire the truck?” Allen Chartier quipped. 

That brought some laughter from the group.

Theriault noted that Wentzell was the same person off-duty as he was at the fire station.

“We’d snowmobile with him,” Theriault said. “He might have been in his upper 60s, but with his helmet on and his gear, you wouldn’t know it. He’d be off his sled and upside down more than he was on the sled.”

The Fire Department had scheduled a head-shaving fundraiser for the chief on Jan. 21.

“Gary ended up losing all his hair,” said firefighter Jamee Theriault, wife of Mat Theriault. “A few of (the firefighters) were just going to shave their heads. Then we thought, maybe it would be a good way to raise money.”

Some 15 to 20 firefighters have decided that they will do this the day before Wentzell’s service to honor his fight with cancer. 

“It’s about togetherness — we’re like a big family,” noted Jamee Theriault, who added that she will be getting her hair trimmed, not shaved.

Firefighters said Wentzell found out about the cancer in early October 2016.

“For those first few weeks, he’d still come to the trainings and meetings and sit here and give us a little update about what was going on,” Mat Theriault said.

On Dec. 18, about 15 firefighters and others went to the Wentzell home and snow-blowed and shoveled the driveway with the chief looking on.

Later on, Mat Theriault went up to help shovel Wentzell’s roof, and was joined by students from the Region 9 Science Fire program.

“(Wentzell) was just overwhelmed,” Jamee Theriault said. “He sat right in the breezeway watching them. He couldn’t believe it.”

The Wentzells said they want a benefit meal at the Rumford Eagle on Jan. 28 for the chief to go on as scheduled.

There will be two seatings. Each will cost $10 per person and will include a meal of meat or chicken pie, cranberry sauce, dinner roll and assorted desserts.

The first seating will be held from noon to 5 p.m. Entertainment will be provided by Ralph Arsenault, Gary Petrie and Jamie Virgin.

The second seating will be from 5 to 11 p.m. Entertainment from 6 to 8 p.m. will be Fat and Jacked, and Monsta will perform from 8 to 11 p.m. A live auction will be in the evening at a time still to be determined.

A Chinese auction and 50/50 raffle will be held.

Tickets are available at the Mexico and Rumford fire departments. Donation items for the live or Chinese auction may be dropped off at the Mexico Fire Department. Items should be labeled with the name of the individual or business donating the item.

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