Local sculptor crafts tribute to late firefighter

BUCKHANNON — Local sculptor Andy Thorne has been hard at work over the past year molding memories of a man who touched — and even saved — the lives of many.

If he was still alive, that man would have been his father-in-law.

Thorne is married to Amy Bennett Thorne, the daughter of Joe Bennett, a beloved, longtime career and volunteer firefighter with the Buckhannon Fire Department.

Bennett was “the backbone” of the Buckhannon Fire Department during his fire service, which spanned three decades from 1985 to 2006, BFD fire chief J.B. Kimble said recently. So when Bennett died unexpectedly following a heart attack in 2006, it left a huge hole in the hearts of his family, friends and fellow firefighters.

To keep Bennett’s legacy alive and well, Thorne — who owns a sculpting business and has taught art classes in the Upshur County School system and at Davis & Elkins College — decided to pay tribute to Joe Bennett by creating a life-sized bronze sculpture of Bennett’s actual turnout gear jacket. It’s called the Joey A. Bennett Memorial.

“Most people assume his name was Joseph,” Thorne said. “They don’t realize his actual full name was Joey.” And fittingly, the Thornes’ 4-year-old son is named Joey after his grandfather.

Thorne said he’d been longing to create some type of permanent piece that would forever honor Bennett, but the idea for the project didn’t fully materialize until he consulted one of Bennett’s fellow firefighters, volunteer Lt. Steve Long. A meeting at the BFD followed, and Thorne worked with the firefighters to outline a budget and timeline.

“They were like, ‘Yeah, let’s do it,’” Thorne said. “They were all friends of Joe’s and friends of the family still.”

But what Thorne is working on in his home studio isn’t just another in memoriam piece.

“We wanted this project to look natural, so instead of doing this big monument of Joe, we kind of decided to do something more personal to the firemen and their gear, so we’re doing his fireman’s turnout gear, his jacket,” Thorne said.

In fact, when the bronze casting is complete, it’s going to be installed in the back bay of the BFD, right next to current firefighters’ turnout gear.

“It’s kind of neat,” Thorne said. “So when you go into the back of the fire station, in the bay where the trucks are in the back, they’ve got their wire lockers and they’ve got all of their turnout gear hanging up ready to go if a fire happens, and we’re going to install this right beside them. His jacket will go back up with everybody else’s like he’s still there, and you can even see his tags are on it. I’ve sculpted in the details.” 

The jacket, which is about
80 percent complete, has “BFD Station 1 Joey A. Bennett” chiseled into its back with the utmost care; even the stitches outlining the letters are visible.

The idea for the sculpture initially blossomed as something Thorne thought he could do for his family, a way to get to know the father-in-law who passed away before he had the chance to bond with him. However, Thorne and Long hope it will also become a conversation starter between older firefighters and those of the younger generation.

“It started out as a thing for our family,” Thorne said, “but now, it’s going to be for the town, too. There’s so many people that he impacted. He saved people. He delivered babies in the back of cars. I think it’s been eight years since Joe passed away, and some of the new firemen, they don’t know him, but they’ve heard stories about him. It’s kind of one of those things [for the older firefighters] where they’re like, ‘We’re going to put this in here and show these younger guys the things that you can do and that you can amount to something great.’”

That’s particularly valuable now, given there are few firefighters still in the service who actually worked with Joe, Kimble said.

“There’s only a few of us left that know Joe, so it’s a way of us remembering Joe and passing that on,” the fire chief said. “Joe was always the go-to guy. Joe had a lot of experience and knowledge, and he was a very good educator … he was kind of like the backbone of the fire department. He was into everything and always knew what was going on, so when he passed, it left a big void.”

Long remembers Bennett as a leader in the department.

“He was very inspirational to younger guys, such as myself,” Long said. “He was a big part of why I do what I do. He was also a driving force in making the new public safety complex down there happen. It’s pretty sad he didn’t even get to spend one day working in the complex. Joe was just an all-around good guy.”

The project has been a way for Thorne to get to know Bennett, who only knew him briefly when Amy and Andy were just friends in high school, several years before they started dating.

“Amy and I were friends in high school, and I would come up here, and I’m sure to him, I was just another boy hanging out with his daughter,” Thorne said with a smile.

Thorne and his wife didn’t start dating until after Bennett had passed away, so Amy Thorne is deeply appreciative of her husband taking initiative with the project.

“Andy never really knew my dad, so I think it’s important, in a way, for us … for him to kind of get to know what he was about,” she said. “Andy came up with this all by himself. He was just so excited. I couldn’t believe he wanted to do this because he didn’t really know my dad. I’m really honored that he’s doing this for my dad because he really meant a lot to me. My dad lived and breathed the fire department, so if anything at all could honor him, this is a good project.”

To Thorne, it was a no-brainer.

“When people around town find out I’m married to Amy, they’re like, ‘Oh, that’s Joey’s daughter,’ and they’ll tell me a big story about Joe, and that’s kind of why I wanted to do this,” he said. “I moved almost every year growing up. I think I went to 21 different schools, but I’ve never been to a town where one guy meant so much to the town.”

Thorne is completing the work for just the cost of the project — but the price tag is $7,500, and he needs the community’s help. Thus far, Thorne has raised just over $2,700 and is 39 percent of the way there.

To chip in, search for “Thorne Sculpture” on Facebook and scroll down to find the link to the fundraising website.

You can also contribute by visiting www.classy.org/campaign/joey-a-bennett-memorial/c133305.


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