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At 84 years old, Bruce Rose has spent more than two-thirds of his life serving the city of Wilson. As of today, the Wilson Fire/Rescue Services’ headquarters on Hines Street will be renamed in his honor.
“I never thought I would be the mayor of Wilson, where I was born and raised, but it happened and it gave me the opportunity to meet just about everybody in this city,” Rose said. “I have met so many wonderful people throughout this city and everywhere I’ve traveled on behalf of Wilson.”
Rose was elected to his first term as mayor in 1992, shortly after retiring following 30 years with the fire department. In a Dec. 30, 1991, Wilson Times article about Rose’s retirement as fire chief, he foreshadowed his political aspirations.
“The city has been good to me,” Rose said. “I would love to be able to give some of my time back to the city.”
Rose was born in 1935 as the oldest of four children, one of whom died.
“I was born on the east side of Wilson and I’m very proud of it,” he recalled. “When I was a little fella, I played on all the streets on the east side and played with kids from all different neighborhoods. We all had fun together.”
He went to Margaret Hearne School through sixth grade before spending six years at Charles L. Coon High School, graduating in 1954. Rose served for two years in the U.S. Army before returning to the workforce in Wilson. He said his dad helped him get a job for Hackney Brothers Body Co., but he soon became restless.
“Chief Bissette was the fire chief at the time and he was a good family friend,” Rose said. “I went to talk to him about getting on at the fire department. He said, ‘Come on’ and they would train me.”
Firefighting was a different animal back in 1961 and Rose saw a number of technological and safety advancements throughout his 30 years of service, including many he implemented as chief.
“Back then, people thought they had to be able to take a lot of smoke to be a firefighter, but that was because we didn’t have a lot of breathing apparatus,” he recalled. “We had maybe seven or eight for the whole department, so we had to eat a lot of smoke and I can name a lot of firefighters who died from emphysema.”
Rose helped get station No. 2 and the headquarters on Hines Street built. Under his leadership, the department added a morning physical fitness component to every firefighter’s routine and expanded beyond just responding to fire calls.
“He has stressed education, and rightly so,” Fire Training Officer Randy Godwin told The Wilson Times in 1991. “Under his leadership, I think the Wilson fire service has made a 180-degree turn for the better.”
Rose said he enjoyed every day as a firefighter, but was eager to retire and spend time with his wife, Delores “Dot” and their daughters in retirement.
“I went for about five or six months without a lot to do when someone asked me about running for mayor,” Rose recalled. “I told them I didn’t want to get in that mess, but I decided to run against Ralph El Ramey and I won.”
A SECOND CAREER
“I would like to work with our citizens to make our city a better place to live, work and play. Our citizens deserve the best of everything,” Rose said in his candidacy announcement in February 1992. “If elected, I will represent this city and all of its citizens to the very best of my ability all the time.”
He said Rocky Mount’s longtime mayor, Fred Turnage, was a valuable resource during those days and a fast friend.
“When I became the mayor, I made the statement that I wanted to be the mayor for all the people and Mayor Turnage said I did right with that message,” Rose said. “I miss him even today, but he helped me get started off right.”
As the mayor of Wilson, Rose was heavily involved in many of the transformative projects that paved the way for growth and economic development. The construction of Buckhorn Reservoir is among one of the harder projects he worked on, but one of his proudest accomplishments.
“If we didn’t have Buckhorn, we would not be able to do what we’re doing today,” he said. “The little pond we had would not have been able to support our growth.”
Rose frequently leads tours around the city for residents and he always makes sure to take them onto the dam at Buckhorn.
“It made some of the farmers mad, but we had to have that for our future,” he said. “Now we have enough water for the next 50 or 60 years, and we made it possible to expand it without a lot of trouble.”
He also was influential in bolstering the city’s athletic facilities — such as the construction and expansion of the J. Burt Gillette Athletic Complex — and the Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park, which have both helped promote tourism.
“I dearly love this city,” he said.
Building the municipal broadband system that would become Greenlight drew ire initially, but the fiber network has helped Wilson attract various industries.
“We got a lot of flak from some for the things we’ve done, but I am willing to take it because I know it is all things we needed for the city,” he said. “Taking flak never bothered me because we’ve never done anything that would be detrimental to Wilson. We do things we know will help the city grow.”
With downtown booming and growing industries adding to the city’s tax base, Rose said he hopes Mayor-elect Carlton Stevens Jr. and other officials will continue the momentum.
“My hope is that things will continue to improve; that the city will continue to grow and be prosperous,” he said. “I want all the citizens to continue to get along with love and respect for one another. If everyone does that, I think we’ll all come out on top.”
Rose’s first wife passed away in 2004, but he looks forward to enjoying retirement with his wife Becky. He said he looks forward to spending time with his daughter Amy Virkler, two stepdaughters — Amanda Sudekum and Debra Davis — as well as his granddaughter Sarah Virkler and grandson Zachary Virkler.
“My family will be first and foremost,” he said. “My grandkids are growing like weeds, so I’m excited to be with them more.”