ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DON RATZLAFF
He’s not burned out, and he still has a fire in his belly for the work. But after 38 years with the Hillsboro Fire Department-including the past 26 as department chief-Wayne Lowry has decided it’s time to walk way.
Lowry will officially retire tomorrow, ending a long and steady career of service for the city and rural residents of Hillsboro.
“After you’ve been in this for 38 years, it’s kind of like, man, I’m going to miss it,” he said. “I’ve seen a lot of changes-some good, maybe some not so good. But that’s the reason I’m getting out-so somebody else can make it better.”
Public service was a key reason Lowry first joined the local department as a volunteer in March 1963.
“It’s just one of those things a person thinks he’d like to do for the community,” he said. “Then it kind of got in my system.
“I kind of thought I was really going to do something, but I found I’ve spent all these years and done nothing,” he added with the laugh that punctuates much of his conversation.
Lowry became assistant fire chief in March 1974 and department chief in June 1965.
“I don’t know that there was anything in particular that drew me to (leadership),” he said. “It’s just one of those things like being a Lions Club or Kiwanis member, or anything else. It was a challenge.”
Suffice it to say Lowry has guided the department through myriad changes during his tenure.
He still remembers the two modest trucks-a 1939 Zephyr and a 1951 Ford-that comprised the department’s fleet when he joined, and can recite all the new trucks that have come and gone since.
Today the department has four trucks-one purchased by the city and three by the rural townships-that just barely squeeze into the fire station the city built in 1976.
“I saw that (fire station) when the old chief laid it out and thought, oh my, that was really going to be a whale of a big building,” he said. “But by the time they built it, it was too small.
“We went from two trucks to four and sometimes five trucks, plus a hose cart,” he added. “Trucks were getting bigger, not smaller. But the space was getting a lot smaller-real quick like.”
Another area of that has grown considerably has been the record keeping and administrative duties that come with the job.
“I started out with two shoeboxes of records, and now I’ve got all that,” he said, pointing two four five-drawer filing cabinets and one four-drawer cabinet in the corner of his office.
“Time have changed a lot since then,” he said. “There’s a whole lot more paperwork, a lot more mandates, and whole lot more rules and regulations to be followed.”
Handling hazardous waste is one example of the changing rules.
“When I first got on the department, you’d have something spill,” he said. “You’d smell it and sniff it. If it didn’t smell too bad, then it wasn’t too hazardous. If it wasn’t too many gallons, it wasn’t too hazardous. You didn’t have such a thing as all these mandates that we have now on hazardous spills.”
He said volunteer firefighters have always require training, but those standards have changed, too.
“If you could smoke on a cigar and blow smoke out both of your years, that’s all the training you needed in the early years,” he said with a laugh. “Every year we get new mandates and training requirements. It’s just like any other job.”
One thing that hasn’t change much is the size-or dedication-of his volunteer support staff.
“You could always put more volunteers on, but we’ve averaged 15 or 16 all along,” Lowry said. “But there’s been constant change, though.
“We don’t have as big a turnover as some departments,” he added. “And I have to say that I have to brag on them because I think all of them are darn good men.
“The chief doesn’t make a department,” Lowry said. “He’s just the one who hoots and hollers when the train jumps the track. It’s the firemen themselves who make the department. Somebody has to be around to do the paperwork and take the blame if something goes wrong.”
Lowry can mark the passage of his command as any field general would-by recounting the major battles he and his men have waged against the enemy. They’ve covered the gamut.
In 1977, Lowry and his team fought a house fire in windchills of 30 degrees below zero. In 1980, they waged war against a rural house fire in 108-degree temperature.
He remembers Dec. 26, 1987, because it was the only time during his tenure that the department battled two major house fires in one day.
The record for calls in a single day was seven-which occurred on the Fourth of July, 1980. That experience resulted in the 12 fire chiefs of the county pushing for a ban of fireworks in Marion County that has prevailed to the present.
“I caught heck for it ever since,” said Lowry, who instigated the union of fire chiefs. “People go, ‘Oh that mean old guy won’t let us have any fun.’ But there was a reason for things.”
Lowry said he and his department have fought hay and silos fires that have lasted several days, but easily the “biggest” fire in regard to damage was his most recent one-the city maintenance shed that was struck by lighting and toasted around $1 million in supplies and equipment.
Though the years, Lowry and his volunteers occasionally have suffered minor burns, heat exhaustion and smoke inhalation, but he feels fortunate they have avoided serious injuries.
But there have been close calls.
While aiding Peabody in a downtown fire, an awning gave way and three Hillsboro firefighters were injured.
“We sent five men and two trucks down there that night and we brought three of the men back in ambulances,” he said. “You wouldn’t call them life-threatening injuries, but they were serious at the time and scared the heck out of me.”
In 1984, while helping with a runaway grass fire in the Flint Hills, a crew of three Hillsboro firefighters riding a Hillsboro truck suddenly found themselves surrounded by flame.
“The assistant chief said the fire went right over them-and we didn’t lose a truck either,” Lowry said. “That was as close as I know of that anybody almost got hung up on something. But they got out and nobody was injured.”
Lowry said one of his most faithful volunteers has never been compensated for the hundreds of hours contributed to the cause. His wife, Elaine, has brought drinks and sometimes sandwiches and snacks to almost every fire Lowry has worked. And she’s done a lot more, too.
“She’s been very dedicated,” he said. “She comes in here and puts in a lot of hours of book work and doesn’t get a dime for it. I bet I can count on one hand the number of fires she has missed. She’s just done a great job.”
The Lowrys have also collaborated on one assignment that has brought him a lot of personal satisfaction: the department’s fire-safety education program, which he began in 1976. The program was originally targeted for public schools, but has expanded to include day-care centers, home schools, senior centers and civic organizations.
“My wife, again, has helped out a lot,” Lowry said. “She would put on the Fire Pup costume and sit back in the corner. Kids would come in and say, ‘Hi, Fire Pup,’ and they’d come over and pet her on the arm.
“We had a lot of fun with that. It was enjoyable.”
Lowry said one of the most frustrating parts of his job has been dealing with spectators.
“People at a fire are just like a bunch of turkeys,” he said. “They get up there and gobble, gobble gobble.”
Once, after telling onlookers to back off several times with no results, he “accidentally” sprayed them from a distance with a fire hose.
“You know, that’s very effective on a crowd,” he said with a laugh. “What else are you going to do? The guys were trying to work and everyone else was trying to rubberneck there and see what they could see.”
On other occasions, in the face of fire hazards, he’s had to address people pretty bluntly to get his message across in a convincing manner.
“A fire chief has to be hard headed and calloused,” he said with a laugh. “He’s got to get where he doesn’t give a darn about anything. I’m sorry to say that, but that’s the way it goes.
“One thing you don’t want to do is to get a fireman or fire chief mad at you,” he added with a chuckle. “Accidents have a way of happening.”
With retirement, Lowry will terminate his connection with the fire department. He approaches the end of his run with mixed emotions.
“I’ll miss it, sure,” he said. “You can’t be in it 38 years and not miss it…. I think I’ll probably keep my scanner, though.”
Fighting the fiery flames of destruction for so many years may have its reward in the hereafter, he added with a smile.
“I told somebody the other day, I’m sure to go to heaven-I’ve already served my time in hell.”