Lesslie Volunteer Fire Chief Larry McConnell dies after battle with cancer

adys@heraldonline.comJuly 2, 2014 

— Larry McConnell, a volunteer firefighter for almost five decades and chief at the Lesslie Volunteer Fire Department, died late Tuesday after a battle with cancer. He was 65.

“We lost a great one,” said Mike Ellis, a Lesslie volunteer who works full-time for the Rock Hill Fire Department.

The American flag outside Lesslie’s main fire station is flying at half-staff as city and county departments plan for a service with full firefighter honors later in the week.

The guy known as “Larry Mac” looked like an Old West gunfighter, with his big drooping mustache. Right through his illness, he fought fires and was in charge at fire and wreck scenes. He stopped only when he had to travel to Duke University Hospital for treatment.

But even while in a hospital bed, McConnell would be on his cellphone, talking to his firefighters about what was going on, what needed to be done.

Firefighters who risked their lives to help others rushed headlong into burning buildings at McConnell’s direction, because he did the same thing for so long and never backed up once. For McConnell, a burning house was not just a building. A family lived inside, and saving the people and property so that family could go on was all he cared about.

For firefighters and the 10,000-plus people in the Lesslie fire district southeast of Rock Hill, McConnell always had their backs.

“Larry McConnell was faithful to his fellow firefighters and the people he served,” said Jerry Williams, Lesslie’s fire chief for decades before McConnell and still a member of the department. “He was a leader and loyal.”

McConnell’s wife of 46 years, Sandy McConnell, said her husband was as passionate in his 60s about the Lesslie fire department and the people he served as he was when the couple married as teens.

“He just loved the department and loved the people, and I always knew that was a part of him,” she said. “I can’t count how many birthdays and holidays he missed because he was out responding to calls. But that is who he was and everyone loved him for it.”

Funeral services are pending.

McConnell’s regular job was a planner and trainer at the York County Emergency Management Office. He taught firefighters for decades through the South Carolina Fire Academy and was a crucial component of York County’s fire and volunteer service. He was Lesslie’s deputy chief for years before taking over as chief in 2007.

Tommy White, longtime assistant chief at Lesslie, will take over the chief’s duties from McConnell, who was a volunteer firefighter for 47 years.

“Larry McConnell is what being a volunteer and helping people is all about,” White said.

Michael Scott, a Rock Hill firefighter who started as a volunteer at Newport northwest of Rock Hill, said McConnell taught his first fire class 20 years ago and instilled in all who met him that the fire service was a calling.

“He helped thousands of people, strangers, and taught others to do it too, because he believed in helping people,” Scott said.

McConnell was always there when the people of Lesslie – or anywhere else in York, Chester and Lancaster counties – needed him, said Chief Bill Dunlap of the Oakdale Volunteer Fire Department, which shares a boundary with Lesslie. The departments help each other out during large events and cover calls if trucks and firefighters are tied up on emergency calls.

“Larry McConell was a volunteer all his life, and he never stopped caring about his community,” Dunlap said.

Although York County in 2014 has almost a quarter-million people, with the city of Rock Hill and its paid firefighters at its heart, most people still are protected by volunteer departments such as Lesslie. They are departments filled with tough guys from the country who leave jobs and homes every day to help others.

McConnell, who grew up out in the country, had one other passion – tractor pulls. He was a champion tractor puller who traveled all over the Southeast. But he was most proud when one of the young people he knew and helped – including a 10-year-old girl from York named Hannah Berberich – would win.

Even when she beat him.

“One time she beat me, and here I was 63 years old, and I was jumping up and down for her,” McConnell said in late 2011.

For Larry McConnell, anybody else pulling through a tractor pull – or getting out safe from a fire – was the satisfaction in life he cared most about.

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