For 54 years, Marvin Waldbieser has participated in the Center Point Volunteer Fire Department's annual fish fry fundraiser.
"It's a community event. Everyone gets involved," Waldbieser told The Brazil Times recently about the event that has turned into a homecoming celebration. "People from all around come back to see each other. It's like a reunion."
Which is why Waldbieser says one of the best jobs to get is "working the food lines."
"You get to see everyone that way," Waldbieser said, adding there is only one requirement to become a volunteer for the fish fry. "You have to have a willingness to help, and a big smile."
And he should know, because Waldbieser is one of the two remaining charter members. Arthur Hart is the other. The men were recognized for their 50 years of service to the department in 2002, which was formed in 1954.
"Center Point was a busier place back then," Waldbieser said.
He remembers the booming little town had two grocery stores, a blacksmith, drug store, funeral home, creamery, restaurant, barber shop, doctor's office, lumber yard, telephone switchboard office, hardware store, post office and bank.
"That was back in the days of the bucket brigade," Waldbieser said, adding that he had an early experience with the buckets. "I think I was in my early teens -- the chimney of my parents' home caught fire from the cook stove -- and there I was, up there on the roof pouring buckets of water down the hole to put the fire out as fast as they were passed up the ladder."
Years later, another home wasn't so lucky.
"We really felt that if we'd had a truck, we could have put that fire out and saved the house," Waldbieser said. "We got together and organized one of the first volunteer fire departments in the area. That's when we started collecting donations for a fire truck."
When the 1939 ladder truck was purchased from a military unit and arrived, the men of the community set about clearing the area for the new fire house.
"We were really proud of it," Waldbieser said. "The men of the town would come home after working their jobs and get to work building the firehouse."
Waldbieser, who's not exactly sure who came up with the initial idea to hold a fish fry fundraiser, said pride in the volunteer fire department unified the townspeople in their effort to support it.
"Roy Stearley had a large fryer he let us use and Roy Wright, one of our local grocers, would drive to Indianapolis to purchase the fish and bring it back. The men were in charge of breading and frying it all up," he said. "The women in town would make the slaw and store it in Wright's cooler until the day of the fish fry. They'd bake beans and make pies. We've had a lot of really good cooks over the years. Everyone got involved in someway."
The organizers recognized the need for entertainment during the fish fry and came up with some interesting ideas.
"We'd close down Main Street for the horse pull, which is still a big thing around here. County workers would come in and set up bleachers for the crowd," Waldbieser said. "We'd also grease up a pole and put a bag of silver dollars on top. Quite a few tried to climb up there to get them."
The menu stayed the same until green beans and a concession stand for other sandwiches were added a few years ago. A drive thru was also added several years ago to accommodate the hectic lifestyles of today.
"We still have the same recipes," he said. "The drive thru is doing well too. We have cars lined up to get fish. Farmers are in the fields right now, but they still want to support the fire department. So the wives come and get plates and take them back to the fields."
Waldbieser was an active volunteer firefighter until health problems caused him to semi retire in 2000.
"I can't go on fire runs anymore," he said. "But I still get to do everything else."
Being an active part of the fire department has also been an integral part of Waldbieser's family.
Ruth, Marvin's wife of 62 years, wasn't anticipating being the wife of a volunteer firefighter when they got married. But she's been at her husband's side throughout it all.
"It's grown to be so much more than we ever dreamed," Ruth said. "It's not what I expected, but it's been good to be a part of this community."
The couple's daughter agrees.
"When it's time for the fish fry, it just energizes the town so much," Linda Miklik said. "Everyone looks forward to it. They put their best foot forward, clean up their yards and work together to support the fire department. I live in Kokomo now, but our family tries to come home each year for the fish fry, like many others do. It's our town reunion."
Although health concerns will keep him from working the pie booth and limit the amount of time he can attend this year, Waldbieser plans on eating dinner at the Center Point firehouse today.
"It's always a good time. I look forward to the baked beans, slaw and the fish," he said. "And the people."