Former North Chatham Volunteer Fire Department Chief leaves behind legacy of hard work and devotion

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Among his children, grandchildren, friends and colleagues, John Wayne Strowd Sr. — known as Wayne to most — could be counted on for his devotion to three things: his family, his farm and his fire department.

The former chief and a founding member of the North Chatham Volunteer Fire Department, died of cancer on July 9 in his home in Pittsboro at the age of 88. In his wake, his loved ones noted that Wayne leaves behind a legacy of hard work and commitment, evident in the community he helped protect as a volunteer firefighter and the hundreds of Holstein cows he cared for on what was one of the largest dairy farms in the county.

Wayne is survived by his two sons, John W. Strowd Jr. and Michael C. Strowd, four grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. His wife of more than 60 years, Shirley, passed three weeks prior to his death.

A family man

Born and raised in Pittsboro, Wayne had close ties to Chatham throughout his life.

“Everything he did was pretty much in Chatham County,” said John, his oldest son and the current chief of the North Chatham Volunteer Fire Department.

Wayne was a family-oriented person, his loved ones shared. On Christmas mornings, he’d expect the whole family to show up to his home, prepared to enjoy the large breakfast of sausages, scrambled eggs, biscuits and ham that he always cooked.

“He was our hero, he was the rock of the family,” John said.

Both Wayne and Shirley shared close bonds with their grandchildren, having never missed a single of their grandchildren’s graduations or weddings. From a young age, John’s sons would help out on their grandfather’s farm, which was a short distance from the house they grew up in.

“I always said I would never have to worry about my boys as long as Wayne Strowd was living,” Tracy, Wayne’s daughter-in-law and John’s wife, said. “I would say that because he had such a positive influence on them for wholesome things.”

For 40 years, Wayne would help pull chains at football games at Northwood High School as part of a group called the “Chain Gang.” In 2017, he was inducted into the Northwood Hall of Fame.

His son said Wayne was in his 70s when he stopped pulling the chains, but he would still take his chair out to the end zone to make sure the rest of the gang was up to par.

“He really enjoyed it,” said Curtis Williams, a friend who worked alongside Wayne on his farm and was also a member of the Chain Gang. “He never missed a Thursday night or Friday night pulling chains. The only time he ever missed (it was) if he was at the fair showing cows.”

Even in her own relationship with her father-in-law, Tracy said he had a huge impact on her, serving as a father figure that she’d never had.

“Wayne was the only daddy I ever knew,” she said.

Friends and relatives remarked on Wayne’s diligent work ethic, something Tracy believes he passed down to his children and grandchildren.

His sons worked on the family farm for years, and John and both of Wayne’s grandsons started their volunteer firefighter careers at the North Chatham Volunteer Fire Department.

“(Wayne) was a tough cookie,” she laughs. “But who wouldn’t be, that has worked so hard all his life.”

An impressive farming career

Wayne graduated from Pittsboro High School in 1953. Shortly after, he attended a two-week agriculture seminar at N.C. State College on the artificial insemination of cattle.

He married his wife, Shirley Ann Crawford, on Christmas Day in 1955.

“They were different people but they were like two peas in a pod,” John said of his parents.

Along with his twin brother Warren, Wayne worked on the family farm; together, they built one of the largest dairy farms in Chatham County. At its peak, the farm had as many as 300 cows, 200,000 chickens and 100 hogs.

For 52 years, Wayne would go to the North Carolina State Fair to show Holsteins, a breed of dairy cattle, which was something he enjoyed immensely.

And for more than three decades, Wayne acted as president of the Central Carolina Holstein Association. During his career, he also served as a member of the N.C. Holstein Association Board of Directors, a co-chair for the N.C. Holstein State Sales and a member of the Chatham County Farm Bureau Board of Directors.

He was also inducted into the N.C. State Livestock Hall of Fame in 2006.

Donnie Thomas, who served as a board member on the Central Carolina Holstein Association with Wayne, said his friend would always see to it that his grandsons had the prettiest display in the whole barn while showing their cows at the State Fair.

“He always looked after kids,” Thomas remarked. “I mean, it didn’t matter if they were his kids, my kids, or somebody’s kids that he’d never seen before.”

Thomas, who was a pallbearer at the funerals of both Wayne and Shirley, described Wayne as honest and genuine.

“He always had time to talk to you,” Thomas said. “If you asked him a question and he didn’t have an answer, he could tell you where to go to get an answer.”

A fire chief with a constant presence

A funeral service was held for Wayne on July 15 at Mt. Gilead Baptist Church, and was presided over by Rev. Dan Robinson and Pastor Wesley Thomas.

During his life, Wayne fostered close relationships with other volunteer firefighters. Volunteers would often get together on Saturday mornings to cook and sell barbecue and chicken plates along U.S. Hwy 15-501 to people on their way to watch football games at UNC-Chapel Hill. The proceeds would go towards paying for gas and hoses for the North Chatham Volunteer Fire Department, Williams, who also worked at the fire department, said.

Wayne’s funeral was standing room only, Williams noted.

“That showed how many friends he had, that showed what kind of character he had,” Williams said.

During Wayne’s lifetime, he watched the North Chatham Volunteer Fire Department grow from its founding in 1968 as a single station with around 20 volunteers to a department that now has seven stations with 60 career staff, in addition to volunteers.

Williams said he believes Wayne’s good-natured character served him well as fire chief.

“And if you can’t get along with people, you can’t be fire chief,” Williams said. “If you can’t be a leader, people are not going to follow you.”

In 2018, Wayne received the Outstanding Emergency Service Award from Orange County for his service in the North Chatham Volunteer Fire Department.

The fire department is another part of the legacy Wayne leaves behind, Williams said.

“We saved a lot of people, we’ve saved a lot of people’s lives, we saved a lot of people’s houses, lands. That’s a big deal there to me,” he said. “If you don’t have volunteers in your community doing stuff like that, you’re in pretty bad shape.”

Tracy similarly noted how much Wayne’s life meant to so many in the community. The absence of Wayne and Shirley in her and John’s daily routines has been significant.

“He was just a constant presence,” she said. “I knew when he was coming into my house, because I could hear the Gator come around the corner.”

One of the things Williams said he’d miss the most about his friend was the daily phone calls they shared. The two would talk about anything: gardening, farming, cows, the weather.

With Wayne being a die-hard N.C. State fan and Williams a lifelong UNC fan, they’d also make sure to call each other up on game days when their favored team would play.

“Of course, State didn’t win many times, so he couldn’t say much,” Williams laughed.

Wayne was a “real good friend,” Williams said.

Whenever they each traveled somewhere, the two would be sure to bring back peaches or corn or some other fresh produce for the other.

Williams said his friend also let him have a garden out on the farm behind a barn, where he grew everything from watermelons to cantaloupe to tomatoes (one of Wayne’s favorites).

After Wayne passed, Williams said he put up a sign on the plot that read “Wayne’s garden.”

Many of Wayne’s loved ones shared that he was fairly simple when it came to life’s pleasures. He enjoyed his cows, volunteering in the Chain Gang and the fire department and spending time with his family.

“He didn’t ask for nothing, he didn’t want nothing, he just wanted you to accept him like he was,” John said.

His father had a deep desire to care for others, he said. That caring nature continues to shine through in the pieces of his life that he leaves behind.

“If he met you as a friend,” John said, “he was always your friend.”

Reporter Maydha Devarajan can be reached at mdevarajan@chathamnr.com and on Twitter @maydhadevarajan.

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