By NJ Clausen
Happy 4th of July, Everyone! This month I have the pleasure of introducing you to an extraordinary man who recently celebrated his 99th birthday. Veteran, Firefighter, Musician…a man of many talents, my friend Robert Grier.
Born in Winston-Salem almost a century ago, Rob’s parents both worked at Reynolds Tobacco and were able to provide a wonderful childhood for Rob and his three siblings. With awe, Rob described how his father was able to build a house during the depression, despite having been laid off from Reynolds and working in a coal mine before returning to Winston-Salem to become a barber. As a child growing up, the family raised hogs and bantam chickens. Rob chuckled as he described the ‘feathered leg warmers’ that distinguishes the bantam chickens. One of Rob’s favorite things to do was to feed them and collect the eggs.
After high school, Rob went to college for a year where he studied education and science, however his true passion was music. A self-taught musician, Rob learned to read music and to play the double bass so well that he played with various jazz groups and trios. In the military, he was part of an 18-piece orchestra. Drafted at 18, Rob was the youngest member in his unit. He remembers celebrating his 20th birthday overseas working on the Burma Road. His job there as an Air Force Private was to ensure that the pilots were able to land and take off safely. He described how sometimes the planes were so damaged they could barely land, and how the landing area required diligence to keep it safe for take-offs and landings. With a grin, Rob recounted that during Japanese air raids, he and a buddy from Raleigh would take shelter in the mess hall instead of a fox hole and have something to eat.
After completing his military service, Rob worked for the city of Winston-Salem and continued to play music while raising a family. After a time, he left the city job and started delivering produce and groceries…. but then found a new career path. It was a time of change, and the Winston-Salem Fire Department was looking to add 8 black firefighters to their roster. Out of 120 applicants, Rob was one of the chosen few and served proudly for 31 years. Despite some complications, the group determined to have the right attitude and they had great support from the community. A group of young black men called ‘Social Promoters’ got together and bought these firemen their first television for the station. As this was during the beginning of integration, there were some things that were redundant that did not make sense, such as two kitchens in the station. Rob admires and will never forget the captain who called an end to the wasted space and separation. In addition to this demanding, sometimes heartbreaking but always rewarding work, Rob also played with the Mount Zion Baptist Gospel Choir for 30 years. Although now what he calls ‘a bench warmer,’ Rob still strives to do what he feels God wants him to do.
At age 82, Rob felt directed by God and moved to Kernersville. He had been living in a condo following the death of his beloved wife and was encouraged to make the change. Rob loves the neighborhood where he lives, and his heart is filled with joy. He loves his neighbors and appreciates how kind they have been. Rob recently celebrated his 99th birthday, and it was an event to remember! He described how fire engines from Kernersville, Rural Hall, Winston-Salem, and High Point went past his house like a convoy, traveling with a police escort and the sirens on. Rob, family, and friends were gathered at the end of his driveway. He choked up a bit as he described how the fire trucks stopped and the firemen all got out to come over and shake his hand, and to offer congratulations. It was a memorable day, and Rob is grateful for the outpouring of love and support by the firefighters, police, friends, and family.