Vienna Volunteer Fire Department Auxiliary President Joan Dempsey first met Carmen Archambault about a decade ago: Archambault would periodically bring homemade desserts and gingerbread houses to the police and fire departments, where Dempsey worked, on a whim.
But they weren't just any gingerbread houses: They were intricate, ornate, adorned with tiny Vienna Volunteer Fire Department firefighter figures to represent the people who served her local department.
"That was Carmen," said Dempsey, who helped recruit Archambault to the fire department's auxiliary in 2007. "She did things like that. She gave. She donated, and didn't expect anything in return. It was her touch."
Friends and family of Archambault were "shocked" this week when Archambault died unexpectedly of Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, a rare form of brain damage that rapidly deteriorates brain function and movement. She was diagnosed on Jan. 9; she died on Sunday.
Her diagnosis and death stunned those who knew the woman, who they say battled cancer three separate times and beat it. The disease affects about one in a million people.
Archambault was born in Lima, Peru, but spent much of her life in the Washington, D.C. area, Dempsey said. She lived in Vienna for a number of years with her husband Maurice, and was a proud employee of Navy Federal Credit Union. Her daughter Claudette has a set of young twin boys, Carter and Hayden, who were "the light of her life," said Peggie Murray, a 25-year member of the auxiliary.
After years of donating to the police and fire departments, Archambault formally joined the fire department in 2007 as an administrative member and a member of the auxiliary.
"She was a good worker, she was a dependable worker and she was always there to help," Murray said. "She was more than willing to help in any way she could."
The qualities spurred her into a number of roles over the past several years: A member of the administrative team and the auxiliary, of which she was also chaplain and a member of the board of directors; a rider on the canteen, providing food and beverages to firefighters while they were on scene; and working the department's weekly bingo game. She was also involved in Fairfax County firefighters auxiliary, Dempsey says, serving as a chaplain for about four years.
"She was just a friend to everybody," Murray said.
But beyond those formal roles, what Archambault was most known for were the little things, her "special touches" that brought each dessert, event or meeting above and beyond the norm, Dempsey said.
Murray said she often took it upon herself to make flower arrangements for every table ahead of a meeting; at the department's open house, she brought her popcorn machine so she could hand out snacks to the children.
Dempsey said they once asked Archambault for 25 balloons -- she showed up with 75. On St. Patrick's Day, she bought hats to make the event more festive. And when Dempsey had to work on her birthday, mentioning she was planning to bring cupcakes so everyone would celebrate, Archambault turned it into a competition, challenging the other people working the kitchen that night to make the "best cupcakes" for the occasion.
Up until this year, she also catered Mayor Jane Seeman and the Vienna Town Council's annual holiday reception, said Councilman Howard Springsteen, past president of the volunteer fire department.
"She always had a lot of energy," Springsteen said. And with it came a sense of humor, Dempsey said.
"She was always cracking jokes, always looking at the lighter side of stuff," Dempsey said.
For many, Archambault's presence is hard to put into words: She had a kindness that warmed people, Dempsey said.
"It didn’t matter who you were or what background you were. She went out of her way to make people comfortable because it made her feel good. She didn’t care what other people thought," Dempsey said.
Archambault had just retired from the auxiliary Dec. 1 to spend more time with her grandchildren, Dempsey said, but continued to work bingo.
Last Sunday night, after Archambault died, Dempsey went to the department's weekly bingo game and placed her picture on the table to honor her.
It brought players, many of whom hadn't even known she was sick or had died, to tears.
"They were hysterical. That was the impact she had on the customers at bingo ... and on the general public too," Dempsey said.
Though the department is without Archambault's physical presence, Dempsey said, she hopes her spirit of selfless generosity lives on.
"She just gave and gave and gave. Part of that was never asking anything in return," Dempsey said. "That was just who she was."
A visitation and viewing will be held from 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday at (Chapel and Reception area), 8601 Wolftrap Road.
Services on Friday are as follows:
- Mass, 10:30 a.m. to 11:15 a.m:
- Interment, noon to 12:30 p.m.: National Memorial Park,7482 Lee Highway, Falls Church
- Reception, immediately following interment until 4 p.m.: 400 Center Street.