Layne Wilkerson is known throughout Justin as a man who is passionate about his community — and fishing.
Today, the 82-year-old will celebrate his 40th year of organizing the annual Justin Community Volunteer Fire Department Fish Fry to be held from 4:30 to 7:30 p.m. at the fire station, 310 N. Sealy Ave.
The all-you-can-eat dinner includes catfish filets, hush puppies, beans, potato salad, cole slaw and all the homemade pie, cakes and cookies you could want, organizers said. Tickets cost $13 for adults and $7 for children 10 and younger.
Assistant Fire Chief Matthew Mitchell said this is the department’s sole fundraiser. He said that in years past, the department held a barbecue dinner in the spring and the fish fry in the fall, but lately it’s just been the fish fry.
Mitchell said the department is trying to raise funds to improve equipment and increase the capacity of a truck’s water tank to 3,000 gallons.
“With 115 gallons pouring out by the minute, you are looking at an extra three to five minutes of us able to work on an interior structure fire until mutual aid shows up,” he said. “Anytime you can buy time — no matter what length — is that much more of the fire you can extinguish.”
Wilkerson said that he has respect for the firefighters, as he was a volunteer in Ponder in the late 1940s. When he moved to Justin in 1969, Wilkerson said, he wanted to do something for the community.
Since he was good friends with Mike Dooley, Justin’s fire chief at the time, the idea to organize the fish fry came about in 1974.
“I have probably spent more time fishing than working,” he said. “I just told Mike Dooley to get the fish cooker and let’s go for it.”
Since then, Wilkerson has kept track every year of how many pounds of fish and other essentials the department buys and uses.
“We have cooked 31,425 pounds of fish, 12,680 pounds of hush puppies, used 8,880 pounds of ‘secret dust’ to roll the fish in and used 3,990 pounds of peanut oil,” he said.
Each year, he said, he is grateful the event keeps growing. The first year, the event started with 200 pounds of fish and four cast-iron pots. This year, he said there will be more than 20 pots under a large white tent and 1,350 pounds of fish.
While he will still be in the loop, Wilkerson said he realizes he needs help, although he wants to continue to participate for as long as his health will allow.
“Next year, Kyle Copp — my second cousin — will be the lead organizer and taking over,” he said during a recent interview.
Copp, Wilkerson said, has been assisting him for at least 35 years.
“If you want a free copy of our ‘secret dust’ recipe, ask him for it,” Wilkerson said. “We have a problem — us old people all these years volunteer, and now we need some youth.”
He said he understands it’s hard to give back these days with the economy the way it is and everyone needing to support their families, but he just hopes someone will have the time to help out. When asked how many hours he has put in over the last 40 years, he said he couldn’t count the hours, he just enjoyed doing it.
“You know, we haven’t even had one accident all these years,” he said. “I believe we have been blessed and the good Lord is really watching out for us.”
MEGAN GRAY can be reached at 940-566-6885 and via Twitter at @MGrayNews.