Learning from life’s lessons – Potomac News Online

It didn’t take a pair of falling skyscrapers for Kalvyn Smith to feel loss.

Those crumbling towers merely reminded him how badly it hurts.

Twelve years to the month before the attacks of Sept. 11, Smith lost both a lifelong friend and an in-law in one horrific instant.

On Sept. 28, 1989, a fire engine driven by Catlett volunteer firefighters Matthew Smith and Mark Miller accidentally crossed into the path of an Amtrak train on its way to New Orleans.

Smith and Miller, hurrying to the scene of a vehicle fire, crossed the railroad tracks at a private intersection. They never heard the train.

Kalvyn Smith, who volunteered for Catlett in his free time, never saw them again.

“It was a very bad experience,” Smith said solemnly in early June. “One of them was related to my wife. I was the best man at the wedding of the other.

“You tolerate it, but I don’t know if you ever get over it,” he continued. “Part of me wanted to hang it up. And in another way, it made me want to do it that much harder.”

He chose the latter.

A dozen years after the accident, Smith holds the rank of lieutenant with the Prince William County Department of Fire and Rescue.

Smith is proof that there may be some truth in the idea that you can’t change who you are.

He is a third-generation firefighter whose grandfather, James Smith, was a career man in the Chicago department. His father, William Smith, was one of the founding members of the Catlett Volunteer Fire Department and spent several years as its chief.

So it was natural for Kalvyn Smith to take up the family business. He has been a career firefighter with Prince William County for nearly two decades.

But even more than a good firefighter, said county Battalion Chief Steve Strawderman, he is a great American.

“He does this because that’s what he is,” Strawderman said. “He exudes the American way.”

And what does that mean to Smith, a man who has received several commendations throughout his career, including one for leading the rescue of a man who tried to kill himself by dousing his home in gasoline and igniting it?

“It’s about the freedom of being able to select and choose your lifestyles and careers and beliefs,” he said. “We always fly the American flag and do the Fourth of July thing. I was born and raised on a small farm, and I believe they have the right kind of values there. We have a lot of trust in each other. That is the true American way.”

Still, the down-home firefighter — who runs both a dairy and a cattle farm with his wife, Lisa, and 9-year-old son, Kraig — was profoundly touched by the terrorist attacks.

“Sept. 11 had a different effect on me [than the Catlett accident],” Smith explained. “It hit me on a professional level. While there was no one who died that I knew personally, it made me want to do this job that much more. We’re standing behind our brothers. We’re not going to fall.”

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