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Last call for 97-year-old fireman in northwest Kansas





McGRAW -- It was standing room only Wednesday for the funeral of 97-year-old George Launchbaugh, a longtime Sheridan County firefighter believed to have been the nation's oldest active volunteer fireman.

He died Saturday at Hays Medical Center as a result of complications from pneumonia, according to Steve Hirsch, training officer for the Sheridan County Fire Department and second vice chairman of National Volunteer Fire Council.

While there's no official method of keeping track of the oldest active firefighter, Hirsch said he frequently attended meetings of the national group when the issue of the oldest active firefighter came up.

When the question turned his way, Hirsch quietly would say 97.

No one even could come close.

Launchbaugh was an active member of the McGraw Station, located northeast of Hoxie. That's also where his funeral service was conducted, at the still-active McGraw United Methodist Church.

It was a standing-room-only crowd at the church, Hirsch said, testament to Launchbaugh's standing in the community and the county's fire department.

Launchbaugh's son, Steve, now is station chief at the McGraw Station.

While Hirsch said the McGraw station, housing a fire truck designed to fight brush fires, didn't respond to many calls, he still marveled 97-year-old Launchbaugh continued to respond, as well.

Hirsch said Launchbaugh remained "spry."

"Pretty incredible guy," he said. "If you ever went away from him and didn't feel like he was your long-lost friend, you weren't listening."

That's why the church was overflowing.

Launchbaugh was born March 21, 1916, in the house he continued to live in as an adult. He served in the Navy during World War II and returned to the family farm in 1944.

As a result, he knew the area where he lived.

"While some might question a person in their 90s still serving as a firefighter, the truth is that George was in great shape, he knew the area around the McGraw community like the back of his hand and was always willing to help his neighbors," Hirsch said.

Launchbaugh "started his fire service career back when wet gunny sacks were the only piece of firefighting equipment available," Hirsch said.

There's no one else in the same age category in the Sheridan department now.

"I told my group when I'm 97, I probably won't be responding to calls like George did," Hirsch said.