📷 A framed photo of Blanchard when he played baseball in the Air Force is displayed at the family home.
By Sarah Champagne, Managing Editor
SOUTHBRIDGE – As a child, Jennifer Jones loved to spend time with her grandfather. She can remember walking into his kitchen, where he would be reading the newspaper at the table. He would slowly lower the paper to peek over at her, make eye contact and pull the newspaper back up quickly in a playful gesture. Another time she fell off her bicycle after getting her shoelace stuck in the gears. Her grandfather rushed to her rescue, easing her fears and helping her up from the ground.
For Jones’ grandfather, Michael J. Blanchard, the impulse to help those who were injured or in danger extended beyond family and led to a long career with the Southbridge Fire Department. Sadly, Blanchard was the first Southbridge firefighter in the town’s history to die in the line of duty. The 49-year-old father and grandfather was serving on a late call the night of Sunday, Dec. 4, 1983, when he collapsed. Blanchard and another firefighter had been carrying a woman on a stretcher from a second-floor apartment when he collapsed. Additional help was called in as Blanchard and the woman on the stretcher were both bought to Harrington Hospital. Blanchard died later that night, officially on Dec. 5, of a heart attack.
Jones and her mother, Eva Duquette, shared stories about their beloved father and grandfather just after the 35th anniversary of his death in the line of duty. Jones was seven years old and Duquette was 26 years old at the time.
“He was your favorite person. Or you were his favorite, I should say,” Duquette said to Jones.
“He was my best friend,” Jones replied. “And my grandfather was kind of a comedian too,” she added.
“Yes, my father was definitely a jokester,” Duquette replied. She recalled a man who loved his family and had a playful spirit.
Blanchard grew up in Charlton and always wanted to be a firefighter. He served in the Air Force during the Korean War and began work as a firefighter in Southbridge after his return from military duty. He served as a permanent firefighter in Southbridge for over 13 years. During that time, his family became accustomed to the unpredictable life of a firefighter and the camaraderie of firefighters’ families.
Jones remembers that she and her grandmother would often bring supper to her grandfather at the station. She also remembers being in the family car to pick up her grandfather when his shift would end at 6 p.m. Jones and other family members would sit in the car near the station waiting for him to arrive. They knew that the nightly “6 o’clock whistle” would boom out from the firehouse while they were at the station, but they would still be startled each time it went off, echoing through town.
“We always said, ‘We aren’t going to jump this time,’ but we always did anyway,” Jones says, smiling at the memory.
Duquette remembers a strong family atmosphere at the fire station. When she was a child, she remembers calling the fire station and saying, “Is my dad there?” as the reply came with laughter on the other end.
“Well, there are a lot of dads here. Which one do you want?” came the reply.
There were also times when Duquette would worry about her father while he was at work. She recalls hearing at home over the radio that Blanchard was in a bucket on the ladder during an active fire, when his air supply ran out. She heard a member of the department say, “You need to get Mike another tank right away,” and waiting for her father to come home safe. She also recalls seeing her father coughing up dark colored ash or other contaminants after fighting the Maci Building fire of 1971.
“They say that you become family with other firefighter families, and it is true,” Duquette adds.
Jones and Duquette say that the sense of camaraderie remains long after a first responder’s last call and that sometimes, the habits of growing up with a first responder in the family stay in a person’s consciousness for a lifetime.
“To this day, I still follow fires to make sure all the guys are OK. I still go on high alert when the firefighters are called to an emergency,” Duquette says.
True to form, when sirens flash and blare outside of the family home during our interview, the two women get up abruptly and rush to the window to find out what is wrong. An ambulance has been called to a neighbor’s house, but it does not appear to be a life-threatening emergency.
“That’s what I mean. The concern for what is going on is always still with us,” Duquette says with a smile at the strange timing.
Hearing news of her grandfather’s passing in the line of duty was difficult for Jones to process as a seven-year-old child. Blanchard’s sudden passing came just weeks before Christmas.
“I woke up in the morning, and my mother told me that grandpa went to heaven. Ad I remember that I couldn’t understand,” recalls Jones.
Blanchard’s funeral was held at St. Mary’s Church on Hamilton Street with calling hours at Morrill Funeral Home. Jones went to the funeral and calling hours, but she kept her distance from the casket.
“I couldn’t do anything but stare at grandpa,” Jones recalls. “Everyone wanted me to go up, but I said, ‘No, I can see from here.’”
After the funeral, a procession in Blanchard’s honor with firefighters, dignitaries and other mourners traveled through town, carrying his casket to the cemetery. The procession stopped briefly at the corner of Main Street and Everett Street to let out a last alarm for the fallen firefighter; the family home was at the far end of Everett Street. Duquette remembers being in a limousine as part of the funeral procession and having a surge of emotion when that “last alarm” sounded as they passed Everett Street.
“I wanted to bolt, I wanted to get out of the car right then,” Duquette calls.
Duquette and her three siblings were all in their twenties when their father died. Their mother, Margaret, never remarried. She died in 2017, more than 30 years after her husband’s death. They wed when they were both 18 and had been married 31 years at the time of his death.
In addition to being a firefighter, Blanchard served as an instructor for CPR and EMT trainings. In his career, he had used CPR and other techniques to help countless people in medical emergencies. It is possible that he had taught the lifesaving technique to some of the people who worked to revive him after his heart attack late that night in 1983.
“He is the one who used to save everyone else,” Jones says.
“That’s the kind of guy he was. He would help anyone,” adds Duquette.
Shortly after our interview, Worcester firefighter Christopher Roy died in the line of duty while responding to a five-alarm fire the morning of Sunday, Dec. 9. Jones said that she thinks of Roy’s daughter, who is nine years old and that she sends her heartfelt condolences to Roy’s family.
“I’m very sorry to hear of his passing, and my heart goes out to his family. Especially his daughter, who is around the same age as I was when my grandpa died. It is so hard to understand and make peace with it. God bless him and his family,” Jones said.