By Stephen Smoot
She was known as “the General” by those who worked most closely with her. And her role put her in a similar position as United States Army General George Marshall. Neither saw their most effective work at the front lines. Both made sure that those who responded to the call had what they needed to save lives and win the day.
Of Bland, Jeff Bowers, president of the South Branch Volunteer Fire Department, remembered “some people live in their communities. Some people serve their communities. Nila lived to serve.”
Pastor Michael Loudermilk officiated at her funeral, bowing to her known preference for brief statements. He opened by quoting from the second chapter of Second Timothy, emphasizing “Thou therefore endure hardness, as a good soldier of Jesus Christ.”
Bland spent decades as a good soldier, fighting tooth and nail for her department to get what it needed to fulfill its mission of saving lives. Loudermilk also shared that she lived her life as a good Christian woman and a loving wife, mother, and grandparent.
After the service, the procession traveled from Franklin to Pine Hill Cemetery in Brandywine, a hill overlooking her beloved fire hall. The day itself seemed heavier, with gray overcast skies and fog clinging to the ridges of the brightly colored mid fall hills and mountains.
Two vehicles of West Virginia State Troopers, a Pendleton County Sheriff’s Department deputy, and Rick Gillespie, Pendleton County Emergency Services Coordinator, provided the official escort.
A Franklin Volunteer Fire Department engine, all lights flashing and crew standing at attention, saluted the procession as it left the town limits of Franklin.
One detail of the journey stood out to those who took part. The custom of stopping in the opposite lane as a funeral procession passes has generally left the minds of those living in the 21st century. On this day, however, for the entire 13-mile journey, not one vehicle failed to observe the custom of respect.
Loudermilk later noted that it was a strong sign of the respect that the entire county had for Bland.
As the procession turned from U.S. 33 to ascend Pine Hill, the state troopers blocked the westbound lane of U.S. 33. The train of vehicles slowly made their way to the cemetery.
At 12:17 p.m., Pendleton County 911 continued a long-hallowed tradition among firefighters. Over the radio, they issued a final call for Bland. After tolling the requisite number of tones, the telecommunicator announced that Bland had finished her call and completed her duties.
“Rest easy, General,” he finished.
She served for many years as the administrator and treasurer of the South Branch Volunteer Fire Department, as well as president of its ladies’ auxiliary. In addition to these vital community services, she also “served in many capacities with the Treasure Mountain Festival Association” and the Pendleton County Extension Homemakers.
In her position with fire department, she was instrumental to their operations. She helped to lead the organization of the lawn parties, her work ensuring that they remained both a vital fundraiser for the department and also a tradition that brought people back year after year for a beloved tradition.
During last year’s lawn party, Bland noted of the attendees, “People are friends and they’re family, blood or not.”
Bland had led the planning of countless dinners and events for the fire department. Plaques on the wall honored her by name as a vital part of the department team. Now others stepped forward to put together a dinner in Bland’s honor in the fire hall that still held her presence in so many ways. Fried chicken, country steak and gravy, green beans, two kinds of potatoes, macaroni and cheese, and 50 feet of table space dedicated to desserts greeted those who came to remember her life and her work.
When most had finished eating, remaining at their tables to talk and remember, Roy Bowers, chief of the South Branch Volunteer Fire Department, called for the attention of everyone present. He shared a story that well-encapsulated the service and dedication of Bland.
“We get audited every so often,” he began. The state fire marshal’s office requires that each department, during an audit, check everything in the fire house. This includes equipment, paperwork, and records of every call.
“It’s a real pain. It’s a nightmare,” Chief Bowers stated.
Not only did the fire house face the dreaded audit, they found out that the “head man” himself would be conducting the audit. This meant that the evaluation would likely be as strict and as exacting as possible, which, as Roy Bowers said “makes it even more intense.”
At 9 a.m. on the day of the audit “me and the General” sat ready to meet the state official. “She had a whole pile of folders . . . in her office,” he remembered. The official gets out his computer and he and Bland get to work.
Chief Bowers remembered that not only did Bland have every detail documented in her folders, she even had the folders aligned in the order in which the questions came. A process that normally takes one day only lasted 40 minutes.
The official joked to Bland that the department “might pass.” Her response was that she did not want to simply pass. She wanted her department to earn a rating of “excellent.”
Chief Bowers then held up an award and announced to the room that not only had Bland earned her “excellent” rating, she had achieved the only perfect evaluation score that anyone could have remembered.
This was fitting tribute to a hard-earned victory in one of the last battles for “the General,” Bland.