Longtime Portageville firefighter retires from duty after 61 years
PORTAGEVILLE, Mo. -- Bill Foster runs his finger across the layer of soot that blackens the edge of his helmet bearing the number nine and the words "Portageville chief."
The title reflects the past 16 years of Foster's service as chief of his hometown's volunteer fire department. As for the soot, Foster spent the past 61 years accumulating it as he worked to protect the lives and property of the people of Southeast Missouri.
Foster's more than six decades of service may well be a record, according to state officials, who along with many others recognized him as he ended his career.
At 82, Foster has decided it is time to stop answering the fire alarm.
Foster grew up around the fire service. His father served as a fireman at the Malden Air Force Base during World War II and following the war joined Portageville's Volunteer Fire Department, where his service included 30 years as the department's chief.
On Nov. 15, 1956, Foster added his own name to the roster of the Portageville Volunteer Fire Department.
"When we got put on the fire department back then, we had no training. Well, you might say it was on-the-job training," he said. "It was altogether different in 1956. When I first started, we had no turnout gear. Whatever you had on your back at the time of a fire, that is what you wore to the fire."
But that would change.
Foster noted today the 25 volunteers making up Portageville's fire department all have their own protective turnout gear. There is special equipment such as self-contained breathing apparatus. Even the firetrucks are computerized, helping firemen to perform their jobs.
The most important change, Foster said, is the training today's volunteers undergo.
"The training is very important, for your safety and your fellow firefighters safety," he explained. "They teach you the whole lot of aspects of firefighting different things."
And not just firefighting. Foster said he and his fellow firefighters are trained for a variety of situations from house and vehicle fires to hazardous waste to extrication. Foster was licensed as an emergency medical technician and continues to maintain his first responder's license.
"I can't even remember all the courses I have had," he added with an easy laugh. "I have a stack of (training certificates) at home."
But even with the training, Foster said there is always an element of danger for firefighters.
"I don't think some of (the public) realize the danger your men are put in. When they page us, we have no idea what we are getting into until we get there," he said. "Anytime you are working with heavy equipment or fighting fires there is always a danger that something could go wrong and get somebody hurt."
Foster recalled when the volunteers responded to a gas station where a car had run over a gas pump causing a fuel leak. The firemen were assured the electricity was off and the wrecker arrived on the scene.
"As soon as the wrecker started moving the car off the gas pump, it caused a spark and the whole place lit up in fire and I was standing out there in the middle of it with the firehose," Foster said.
It was then Foster said he heard his father, who was the fire chief at the time, rev the motor of the fire truck. His training kicked in and Foster flipped the nozzle to fog, held it over his head and walked out of the inferno.
Foster holds out his left palm and adds: "I never did understand it. I had fire gloves on but I got up the next morning and this hand was the only thing burned on me. That was one time I was scared."
The really dangerous situations sometimes don't involve fire. According to Foster when crews respond to accidents on Southeast Missouri's roads, they must remain alert to their surroundings and the drivers.
He recalled when he and other personnel were cleaning up a hazardous material spill during an accident, a driver struck a patrol car, which had its warning lights flashing.
Then there was the 32-car pile up which blocked the northbound and southbound lanes of Interstate 55 during a winter ice storm. That day it was a police officer's car which was struck while he and his crew were on the scene.
The job can be heartbreaking.
"I have had houses that burned that lost three or four children," Foster said. "Those were never fun to work but that is just part of the job."
But there were fun times. Foster said he especially enjoyed going to the schools during fire prevention week and talking with children.
Also for a number of years each Halloween, the volunteers hosted a "Haunted Inn." The event was an opportunity to offer a scare or two and was a successful fundraiser.
According to Foster, the money raised from the event enabled the department to pay for much of their newest firetruck.
Today, thanks to strong community support, Foster said the department maintains four pumpers, one tanker, an extrication or rescue truck along with a utility truck.
And there was strong support at home. Foster said often just as his wife, Patricia, began to serve a meal, his pager would sound calling him to duty.
"She would always tell me to be careful when I left the house," he said. "I missed a lot of Christmas dinners, Thanksgivings, birthdays and stuff like that. You never know what time day or night you are going to get a call."
He would miss meals with their two children, son, Chris, and daughter, Kathy. The years of service would mean time missed with his granddaughters and five great-grandchildren.
On Jan. 1, 2001, Foster was elected chief by his fellow volunteers replacing the late Bob Duggins. Throughout his tenure, Foster said he stressed safety -- from urging training for every volunteer to simply reminding responders to buckle up when they got in a vehicle.
While he takes pride in his years of service, Foster said, as he prepares to turn 82 it seemed like the right time to retire.
"I figured I had fulfilled my childhood dream of chasing firetrucks," he said with a laugh. "I just decided it was time for the younger people to take over."
But before they took over, the members wanted to send their long-time chief out with a salute.
George DeLisle, who served as assistant chief under Foster and recently was named chief of the volunteer fire department, described Foster as dedicated. No matter the time of day or night, DeLisle said they could depend on Foster responding to every call.
"He was just always extremely gently and very compassionate to the people's needs," DeLisle continued. "And very much in shape. He can outwork the younger kids; being 82 was no barrier."
During his retirement dinner at the end of January, fire chiefs from throughout the region joined the local volunteers in saluting Foster's service. There was a proclamation from the office of Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens, recognition from the Missouri Senate and Sen. Doug Libla, and Rep. Don Rone was on hand to read a House proclamation. U.S. Senator Roy Blunt and Rep. Jason Smith sent their congratulations as well.
Missouri Fire Marshal Tim Bean presented Foster with a special coin. Bean called Foster's years of active service a record.
For Foster, some of the most touching comments were left by citizens on the Fire and Rescue Squad's Facebook page. For many of them, Foster is the face of their local fire department.
In thanking Foster for his "faithful service to our community," Todd Higgs added he was grateful for all the ways Foster made the community better.
Malin Killion Bowers was one of dozens adding her congratulations. " What a fantastic life of service you have led. I'm sure you have touched countless lives and you certainly did mine. God bless and thank you," she wrote.
DeLisle pointed out Foster's dedication to the community goes beyond the fire department.
After working more than 37 years for the U.S. Postal Service, Foster joined DeLisle Funeral Home's staff. His list of service includes two years as a police officer, five years on the town's board of aldermen, 11 years as a licensed EMT and 22 years as municipal judge.
"The compassion Mr. Bill has speaks volumes," DeLisle said. "He has always been there for families -- whether fire, ambulance or here at the funeral home. He is there -- and was there and still continues to be there."
Foster said it is a pleasure to serve the community he loves and added he will be around to offer advice to the volunteer fire department when needed. He even keeps the department's pager on his phone.
But don't look for him at the scene.
"The other morning at 2 o'clock when they had the ice and stuff on the road, they got a call for the accident out there. I looked at it and I said, 'Go get 'em boys' and I went back to sleep," he said. "Been there, done that. But it was good."