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Neighbors rally around Harrisonburg man who lost home to fire

Randi B. Hagi

The Harrisonburg community is rallying around a 76-year-old man who lost his home to a fire back in August. WMRA's Randi B. Hagi reports.

Jacob Pringle is a fixture on Jefferson Street. Originally from Georgia, he's made the Harrisonburg neighborhood his home for more than four decades – in a cute, one-story house built in 1940, with light blue trim and a metal roof. Neighbors know they can go to him for help if their car breaks down or their washing machine stops working. One day in early August, he was outside working on his truck when he smelled smoke.

JACOB PRINGLE: Well, I kept smelling stuff burning, and I thought it was the neighbor … and I looked over here and didn't see nothing. I was in the alley. And I looked up the alley and I saw it coming out of the vents, and I come in the door, opened the door and the fire hit me. And then I got my fire extinguisher. I was spraying, and then called 911.

Although the fire department was able to put out the blaze, Pringle lost everything in the house. He thinks the fire may have been caused by squirrels or raccoons in the attic chewing on electrical wires. He showed me inside the house, which is now gutted because it was too badly damaged to repair. The roof sheathing towards the rear of the home is blackened and charred.

HAGI: Wow man, yeah, you can still smell the smoke, too. 

PRINGLE: Yeah. Well, it got started back there.

When James Rankin, a deacon at the church just around the corner, heard what happened, he got the community together.

Credit Randi B. Hagi
Pringle with James Rankin, a deacon at nearby First Baptist Church.  Rankin started a steering committee to raise money to build a new home for their friend.

JAMES RANKIN: Once we got notice, we rallied around J.P. as a member of our church, First Baptist Church, and so there's been a tremendous response from the very beginning.

Rankin joined up with four other community members to form the Pringle House Steering Committee – and they got to work getting a new home built for their friend. Barry Kelley, the CEO of Matchbox Realty, became an early ally.

RANKIN: We happened to be out at the landfill one day after the fire. We were taking some things out. And Barry was over there, and he saw J.P. and said, 'what's going on?' He found out and he said, 'well I want to help – what can I do?' And he has been a tremendous resource to us. 

Other businesses have stepped forward to donate surveying services, a dumpster rental, and blueprint designs. 

RANKIN: We're going to do all we know to do to restore this house for J.P. at no cost to him. I mean, he's already had a loss. And then we want to make sure he doesn't have a mortgage after we finish.

The group is fundraising through a GoFundMe campaign for the materials and services they can't get donated.  They've raised more than $8,000 towards their goal of $150,000.

RANKIN: We can now apply for a building permit – demolition and a building permit. And we're going to do it in stages, and we have to have funds before we can go to the next stage, because we didn't borrow any money. We're going to have it in reserve and be able to pay as we go. So we have to be ahead of that curve, but we're all ready to go through that first stage of demolition, pouring footers, and maybe coming up out of the ground.

Rankin has known Pringle for about 40 years. 

RANKIN: He was friends with my cousins. They hunted, fished together, and he would visit out there in Mt. Crawford … We've had lots of help, and we're appreciative of everybody. Like I said … what is it, "nobody doesn't like Sara Lee?" Well, nobody doesn't like J.P. He's a friend to all, and just a tremendous resource, and we just want to see him be comfortable and have his home restored. 

He describes his friend as handy, kind, and helpful.

RANKIN: I'll give you an example. Last Sunday, we were at church, and he was just talking to me, we were just having conversation. He said he was wondering if there was a way he could help the people in Kentucky. And so I think that speaks to his heart … he is just a good friend, a good person, a great resource in the community, and everybody loves him.

Pringle expressed his thanks to the community for their support. It's still hard for him to let go of his long standing home – he said he'll be there to watch it go down once the bulldozers come.

Randi B. Hagi first joined the WMRA team in 2019 as a freelance reporter. Her writing and photography have been featured in The Harrisonburg Citizen, where she previously served as the assistant editor; as well as The Mennonite; Mennonite World Review; and Eastern Mennonite University's Crossroads magazine.