It was one of the town's best-kept secrets, and hundreds of coconspirators kept it quiet for months. Retiring fire chief Richard H. Clark Jr. was treated to a surprise party on Saturday. The event that filled the Agricultural Hall in West Tisbury took months to plan and was kept a secret from the chief until the last moment. This party will go down in the record books as Tisbury's biggest caper.

The fact that the community was able to keep it a secret almost upstaged its significance; for Chief Clark is known for having an untiring ability to sense something is amiss. His curiosity about anything related to his department is legendary.

The firemen have the evidence that their surprise was successful. Mr. Clark was not at all happy to learn that he was on his way to somewhere special when he stepped into the limousine. It was reported at the start of the party that the chief was quite angry. It was also reported that Mr. Clark was driving around town hours before, trying to figure out what was going on. It never occurred to him that the firemen would stage the event outside the bounds of Vineyard Haven.

The afternoon and early evening event did cause everyone to smile - even the chief.

Mr. Clark, who has served the town of Tisbury as a firefighter since 1955 and stepped in as chief in 1979, was honored for his leadership and dedication. A long lineup of speakers came forward to share their stories of his service. Mr. Clark celebrated his 65th birthday yesterday. His assistant, John Schilling, has stepped in to fill the top position.

Chief Clark arrived at the event in a six-door stretch limousine, preceded by a West Tisbury police car with flashing lights. Getting him into the limousine took some significant effort, according to members of his immediate family. Only then did he realize he was going to a party.

By the time he stepped out of the vehicle, accompanied by his wife, Lorraine, he was smiling as he was met by the whole fire department at the entrance to the building. Every one of the more than 50 firemen was formally dressed in either a white or blue shirt. Tears fell from the cheeks of some of the firemen.

Chief Clark was described as a "father figure," a mentor and a man who oversaw more than the issues of fire fighting, setting the spirit of his department as a team of dedicated men.

A Tisbury fire department flag crackled in the wind over the fairgrounds. The interior of the agricultural society meeting room was decorated with photographs of fires over the years and pictures of the chief as a younger man - it was a scrapbook testifying to years of service. Fire chiefs from all the Island towns congregated in the larger hall, where dinner was served. Among the long list of men on hand was Oak Bluffs retired fire chief Nelson Amaral. There were many distinguished guests, including local police and firemen from other towns and public servants involved with the county communication center. State fire marshal Stephen D. Coan of Stow came to speak, as did state Rep. Eric T. Turkington.

Mr. Coan told the Gazette he and Mr. Clark were friends going back at least 20 years. "When I was directing the state fire academy, I was looked for a key fire chief to act as an ambassador from the Island. Richard Clark stepped in."

Chief Clark helped coordinate much of the training that took place for the benefit of Island firemen.

After a buffet dinner prepared by Marc Hanover's crew at Linda Jeans, the real festivities began. Jeffrey Pratt, moderator, introduced the speakers.

Edgartown fire chief Antone Bettencourt spoke of being properly coached in his first year as fire chief in 1989. "Richard gave me a big boost in my career," he said. Mr. Bettencourt represented the Dukes County Fire Chiefs Association.

Tisbury selectman and chairman Ray LaPorte told the audience the selectmen had designated the day as Chief Richard Clark Day.

Mr. LaPorte described many of the chief's attributes. He said: "His leadership is unbelievably quiet."

Selectman Tristan Israel had his own description. He described the chief as being fair to all but never compromising when it comes to the interest of the town or the department. "And he has a sense of humor," Mr. Israel said.

Sherman and Susan Goldstein, owners of the Tisbury Inn, made a presentation to the chief. They gave him a plaque commemorating the night of the Tisbury Inn fire.

Mr. Goldstein told the audience that ground breaking for construction of The Mansion House, on the site of the Tisbury Inn, is set for July 9. The Mansion House was the original name of the inn.

Mr. Goldstein spoke of the chief's straightforward way with information. "He gives the answers," he said. Mr. Goldstein said that the chief was always fair, never making a distinction based on a person's position in business or politics.

Firemen, including assistant fire chief James Rogers, Ken Maciel and Thomas Colligan, each offered their thoughts.

Joseph Tierney, president of the Tisbury Firefighters' Association, said: "We've all felt like we are his children."

Mr. Maciel said: "The chief is like a father. I would hear the chief say to me: ‘Come over here. Come over here.' Then I would go home at night and hear: ‘Come over here, come over here.' "

Letters and plaques were presented to the chief. Proclamations came from Sen. Edward Kennedy and Cong. Bill Delahunt.

Joseph A. O'Keefe Sr., the state retired fire marshal, said: "A good fire chief serves his town; a great chief serves the community."

Mr. Colligan paid tribute to the businesses that support the fire department by allowing their employees to take time off: "We must also thank Brickman's. For without Brickman's, we'd have never had Dick."

The audience applauded.

Stepping in to complete the ceremony, newly appointed fire chief John Schilling and Mr. Colligan gave the retiring chief a Travis Tuck weather vane, depicting Engine 1. With all the firemen standing behind the chief, they gave him a portrait of the fire department.

Chief Clark stood at the podium only for a moment. "This," he said, "has been wonderful."