As It Happens

This fire department was struggling to make ends meet — until a 91-year-old man gave them an unexpected gift

Mark Hardin, volunteer fire chief in rural Calhoun, Mo., says his department had less than $200 in the bank before they got an expected donation from a retired businessman.

'I didn't know what to say,' says volunteer fire chief in Calhoun, Mo., of $500K US donation

A smiling man whose shirt reads "M. Hardin, Chief" stands in front of a bright red fire truck
Mark Hardin is the volunteer fire chief in Calhoun, Mo. His department recently received a donation of $500,000 US. (Heather Hardin)

When Mark Hardin first saw the cheque for half a million dollars, he could barely form words.

Hardin is the volunteer fire chief in rural Calhoun, Mo. He says his department had $169 US left in the bank by the end of March, and his team was paying out of pocket just to keep gas in the trucks. 

Now, they have enough money to buy new uniforms and trucks, and still have some to spare — and it's all thanks to an unexpected donation of $500,000 ($685,250 Cdn) from retired businessman Sam Sloan.

"Sam handed me a cheque ... and he says, 'I think this will help your department out.' I couldn't say anything," Hardin told As It Happens host Nil Köksal.

"I felt embarrassed about it, but the only thing that came out of my mouth was, 'I've never seen a cheque with that many zeros on it before.'"

Giving his money away 

Sloan, 91, says he's been working and saving money more than seven decades.

"Been in business all my life, ever since I was 20 years old," he told CBC. "And each time I sold a business, I put away a little money to go to the next one."

Most recently, he says he ran a successful cattle and seed business out of Kansas. When he sold it, he decided to retire and start giving some of his money away.

A group of people stand outside next to a bright green truck. A bald man at the centre places a white fire hat on the head of an elderly man in denim coveralls.
Calhoun Fire Department chief Mike Hardin places a firefighter's helmet on Sam Sloan, a 91-year-old retired businessman who donated $500,000 US so the firefighters could buy new equipment. (Justin Jones)

He's been working with two trustees to manage his estate, and says they spent some time shopping around before landing on Calhoun's volunteer fire department, which is not far from where he lives on Highway 52. 

"It's easy to give the money away, but it is hard to give it to somebody that appreciates it," he said. 

But when he met Hardin, he says he knew his donation would be in good hands.

"He's a great guy," Sloan said. "He knows the ropes on how to deal with a small-town fire department."

Business over breakfast

Hardin says Sloan called him out of the blue in April.

"I've never talked to him, never met him before," Hardin said. "He asked me if I was the fire chief down there at Calhoun, and I said, yeah. He said, 'Well, if you don't mind, can you pick me up and take me to breakfast tomorrow morning?'"

The next morning at the diner, Sloan peppered Hardin with questions about the fire department. 

"I thought it would take an hour or so. Four hours later, we were eating breakfast," Hardin said with a chuckle.

Three fire trucks parked in a garage.
The Calhoun Fire Department has been relying on decades-old gear and hand-me-down fire trucks from other departments. (Heather Hardin)

The following week, Sloan called Hardin again, and they had breakfast a second time. 

"The second week, he got more in depth. He was like, 'Well, what are some of the [things] that your fire department needs?" Hardin said. 

So Hardin painted him a picture.

He'd taken over as fire chief in December of 2021, at which time, he says, they had one volunteer and no working equipment. Over the years, he says he's been able to build the department back up, and they now have 29 volunteer firefighters. 

But, still, he says, they struggle to make ends meet, pinching every penny of their $4,800 US annual budget, relying on donated equipment from other fire departments, and even covering costs themselves. 

"It's kind of sad, but that's kind of typical [for] rural departments in the United States. There's not much funding out there for us," he said. 

The next week, Sloan called again, inviting Hardin over to his home.

When Hardin arrived, he says he was greeted by Sloan at his kitchen table with his wife, his bookkeeper and the trustees of his estate by his side. There were doughnuts spread out on the table. 

"I had a feeling something was coming," Hardin said. "I didn't expect it to be $500,000."

Honorary fire chief

Sloan says volunteer fire departments are essential, especially in rural areas. Having worked in Kansas, he says he knows a fire can destroy thousands of acres of farmland in a flash if nobody responds. 

And he says the roughly 400 people of Calhoun "need protection."

To show their appreciation, the firefighters invited Sloan to the firehouse last weekend and presented him with his very own firefighter helmet that says "Honorary fire chief."

"We got it here in the house," Sloan said. "It's quite a gift. I might wear it around once and a while."

A hand holds out a white firefighter helmet with a gold and red insignia that reads: 'Honorary fire chief, Calhoun FD, Sloan"
The Calhoun Fire Department gifted their generous donor with a white firefighter helmet. (Heather Hardin)

Hardin says he's already ordered new uniforms and equipment for his team. "Most of our gear is from the '80s and' 90s," he said.

When it arrives, they plan to celebrate by inviting Sloan out for a big barbecue.  

"I said we can have hot dogs and hamburgers and invite everybody out," Hardin said. "He's like, 'No, we're eating steaks!"

Sloan, meanwhile, says he's not quite done giving back.

"I'm 91-years-old. My health is basically pretty darn good," he said.  "And we've got more money to give away, too."

Interview with Mark Hardin produced by Katie Geleff

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