It didn't matter what time of the day or night it was. When the call came from the Bay Shore Fire Department, Charles Holmes responded.
Even after 73 years of fighting fires, the Brightwaters resident would roust himself from bed to go wherever he was needed. Holmes was still answering calls as recently as December, sometimes over the objections of his family.
"In the middle of the night," said his nephew Danny Holmes, a fellow Bay Shore firefighter, "he was the guy on the corner directing traffic."
Only the scourge of COVID-19 could stop Charles Holmes from serving his community.
After several weeks battling a bad heart and other ailments, Charles Holmes died on Feb. 16 at South Shore University Hospital in Bay Shore. The cause was pneumonia and the coronavirus, said his daughter, Lauralee Bennett of Daytona Beach, Florida.
Holmes — the longest-serving firefighter in the Bay Shore department's history, by a wide margin — was 92.
His longevity and dedication inspired others and served as a great example to his comrades, said Bay Shore Fire Chief Kevin Butler.
"He was mostly doing things like traffic control, but he was still out there," Butler said. "He was an extremely active guy in his younger days" and served for a time as an engine company captain.
"An overall great guy who will be terribly missed by the guys," Butler said.
Born on March 24, 1928, in Bay Shore, Holmes — known to some as Dukie, his childhood nickname — was one of eight children, his family said. He never finished high school and made a living delivering groceries for markets in the area.
But it was at the fire house that Holmes felt most at home. He joined the Bay Shore department when Harry S. Truman was president in 1948 and never left, Butler said. His family said Holmes was eventually hired as a department mechanic about 25 years ago.
During down time, Holmes liked sharing coffee with his colleagues and telling old stories, Butler said, adding Holmes was named an honorary chief several years ago.
"Always had a joke. Always happy to be at the fire house," Butler said. "For someone his age to still be getting up at 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning was a phenomenal example for the younger guys."
When he wasn't at the fire house, Holmes might be found on his 22-foot Grady-White fishing vessel, which was named Lauralee for his daughter. A former president of the Bay Shore Tuna Club, Holmes liked trawling for scallops in the Great South Bay or going ocean fishing, Bennett said.
"He was always the guy who would help, who would give you a hand," said Rick Zappia, also a past president of the club. "Whether he could do it or not, he would give you a hand. ... He could talk to anybody and get them to join the club."
As he reached his 90s, Holmes' devotion to the fire department sometimes worried his daughter. He always assured her he would be safe, she said.
"He was very dedicated to the fire department. He did not want to go inactive," Bennett said. "I would worry about him that [he would go on calls] in the middle of the night … He said, 'No, no, it’s not dangerous.'"
She added, "He really liked this community."
Holmes is survived by his wife, Nina, of Brightwaters; his daughter; two grandsons, Neil Bennett of Hicksville and Drew Bennett of Mineola; and two sisters, Mickey Hrubes of Islip and Leola (Jo) Larsen of North Carolina.
A funeral Mass for Holmes was said Thursday at St. Patrick's Roman Catholic Church in Bay Shore. Burial followed that day at Oakwood Cemetery in Bay Shore.