Two years ago, Sherrill Dayton, a 52-year veteran of the East Hampton Fire Department, was so weak from chemotherapy for his non-Hodgkins lymphoma, he was using a wheelchair at the department’s annual dinner.
At this year’s annual fire department dinner at the Maidstone Club on Saturday night, Mr. Dayton—whose cancer has now been in remission for a year—had no trouble walking up to accept his award as East Hampton Fire Department’s Fireman of the Year.
“I was very overwhelmed,” Mr. Dayton said on Sunday afternoon, the day after he had received his award, at his home on Toilsome Lane in the village. “I was in complete surprise. I had no idea at all.”
Mr. Dayton, 71, still plays an active role in fire department. He joked that he may not be tearing into burning buildings anymore, but goes to fires when he has the chance to, and does what he can when he gets there.
Mr. Dayton was named fireman of the year by the three heads of the East Hampton Fire Department: chief Tom Bock, first assistant chief Gary Zay, and second assistant chief Ray Harden. After the six companies of the department each nominated their own fireman of the year, the captains of each company recommended their choices for the top winner to the three chiefs, who made the final decision.
For Chief Bock, seeing Mr. Dayton’s devotion to the department through his years of bad health, and gradual recovery over the past year, helped make the decision easier.
“To see him bounce back this year out of the wheelchair—riding the trucks, helping out at the different functions, doing a lot of different things with the company, showed real pride,” inspired everyone, said Chief Bock, who will be stepping down as chief on Thursday after two years in the position, and will be replaced by Mr. Zay.
“No question about it, we definitely got the right man,” Chief Bock said.
To call Mr. Dayton a local in the village may be a bit of an understatement. He’s from a family whose roots in East Hampton date back to the 1640s. The house in which he lives on Toilsome Lane was built by his ancestors in 1829.
He joined the fire department in 1956, after graduating from East Hampton High School. Describing his first experience with a house fire at the home of painter Dewey Hand in Northwest Woods, Mr. Dayton recalled feeling more than a little nervous after he watched a pressurized gas tank catch on fire and break free from the side of the house.
“There was a 100-pound gas cylinder, and it melted off, or broke lose, and that thing was flying across the yard,” he laughed. “I took one look at that and said, ‘I don’t know about this.’”
Now the third longest-serving member in the department, the former builder has battled plenty of blazes over the years. He recalled the devastating fire that destroyed the Edwards Theater, where the United Artists East Hampton theater is now, in the ’60s, as one of the worst he could remember.
Chief Bock said that Mr. Dayton’s long experience and warm personality had earned him a deep respect from younger members of the department.
“The young guys all look up to him, and have a great time around him,” Chief Bock said. “When he is around, he is always making people laugh. He’s got a great sense of humor.”
Mr. Dayton worked as a builder for more than 40 years in East Hampton, and restored a group of windmills across East Hampton and Southampton—including the Hook, Pantigo, and Gardiner windmills in the village—before retiring in 1998.
His wife of 40 years, Janet Dayton, was a teacher at the Montauk School, and the couple has a son, Charles Robert Dayton, who lives in East Hampton and works for DiSunno Contractors, and a daughter, Diana Decheirt, who lives in Bronxville.
Mr. Dayton started having health problems five years ago—beginning with a case of pneumonia, he later suffered neuropathy that limited his mobility, developed vision problems from medication he was taking, and was finally diagnosed with cancer three years ago.
With her husband struggling through chemotherapy in 2006, Mrs. Dayton remembered how his fellow firemen made sure that he got to the annual dinner that year.
“They came to the house, helped load him in the car to go to the club, took him out and wheeled him upstairs,” Ms. Dayton said.
“I know there are people who, when they get ill, they don’t want people to know about it. Sherrill was not like that, he thrived on people,” she added.
Mr. Dayton has put on the 40 pounds that he lost while he was sick, and has regained his mobility with the help of a physical therapist.
He returned with his wife from a four-week trip to New Zealand last Thursday, and in addition to serving on the fire department, he volunteers for East Hampton Meals on Wheels and the Village Design Review Board.
Looking back to 1956, when he first volunteered for the department, Mr. Dayton said that deciding to serve the community—and get an opportunity to forge lifelong friendships in the process—“was one of the best things I ever did.”
“I think that’s one of the greatest things, the camaraderie of a fire department,” Mr. Dayton said. “I can’t speak for other departments, but it sure is strong in our department.”