BENWOOD, W.Va. (WTRF) – “It’s sad for our little town, but we’ll pull together. We’ll work as a team. We’ll carry on his legacy at the fire department.”
Smith says it will not be the same without her Uncle, Benwood Fire Chief Mike Smith, at the helm.
News of the longtime chief’s passing quickly spread as fast as the flames he fought.
According to Smith, “What everybody is going to miss is everybody going down from the fire station where he lived and he was always on his porch, always had a smile, always had a cup of coffee, always had a crew on his porch to carry on a conversation with him and that’s going to be missed.”
The chief was known as Big Mike at the fire station.
He dedicated 64 years of his life as a firefighter, 54 of those years as Benwood’s fire chief.
Benwood firefighter, John Waldrum, is one of the many who will miss the chief.
Waldrum says, “Mike was a great guy, a great mentor for the city of Benwood and I will miss him myself because he taught me a lot of knowledge in the fire service so my heart goes out to him and his family.”
Taylor says with tears filling his eyes, “I don’t know if he has seen something in me, but that man has shown me that I was something more than what I saw in myself.”
Jennifer Richmond, who is the chief’s granddaughter, says “He would always make you laugh. I could predict anything he would say. We spent so much time together. He has such an amazing family and I am very lucky to call him my Pap.”
Richmond says her grandfather programmed the grandchildren to listen for the whistle and get his walkie-talkie for him.
She recalls what happened just days before he passed.
She says, “The whistle went off and although he couldn’t verbalize it to me he pointed with his finger over to the scanner and I knew what I needed to do. So, I went and listened to what was happening and I came back and reported to where the call was going and he just shook his head and I think that story shows what kind of man he is and it shows that the Benwood Fire Department is his pride and joy. He is the most selfless man I know and I am so lucky to call him my Pap and I truly believe he has earned his status of fire chief for life here.”
He received many awards for his accomplishments over the years and in 2017 was awarded the Distinguished West Virginian Award by Governor Jim Justice.
Garson Taylor, who has been sworn in as Benwood’s new fire chief says, “He showed us an outstanding life that he lived through him here, as a person and our chief. That man right there was a spitting image of why we do it.”
He says spent many hours with the chief.
Taylor says he will cherish their conversations.
“He’s hands down a class act,” says Taylor, “He showed not just myself, but everybody here what a true leader is.”
The chief’s son-in-law and former Benwood police officer Lou Richmond says, “The night that Pap died I texted Garson and told him he has big shoes to fill and I know my father-in-law loved Garson and thought a lot of him and thought that Garson would do an excellent job for this community.”
Richmond says he had to learn how to drive a fire truck when he was an officer.
According to Richmond, working with his father-in-law was both an honor and a privilege.
Richmond serves Benwood as a firefighter himself.
He continues, “His heart was one that not too many people have. He didn’t hold grudges. He didn’t have an enemy. He would just do anything for anyone and it didn’t matter time, day or night and if you needed him he would be there for you and he was very open-minded , open-hearted, anyone that needed something he would take it out of his pocket and give it to them. He was very giving. He was not selfish at all and he just wanted to do things for the community.”
The chief and his wife Bonnie worked at the fire station dedicating more than 100 years of service between them.
Richmond also says, “Mike was something special that this community will never see again and he and his wife dedicated their lives to the city. They dedicated their lives to the public at any beck and call. If it was fundraisers, bingos or fish fries or somebody that had their cat caught in a tree or somebody who needed their pilot light lit in their basement or stove especially when in floods or storms or if something tragic would happend he would be the one to run to the building first, ready to go.”
Richmond can remember one family function and what happened when the siren sounded.
“We had a birthday party for one of my children and the tone went off and they left the party because that was more important and that just tells you the kind of class a person he was, he and Bonnie both,” says Richmond.
Richmond says if he could he would tell the chief thank you for everything just one more time, and that he knows the entire family feels peace knowing that this beloved Benwood fire chief who once who ran through the streets together with his wife, responding to calls both day and night, is hand in hand now, with her, once again.
Richmond says, “He was very dedicated to his wife and his family and I know that he is in a better place now because he missed him wife greatly when she passed and that would be the shining star that they are together.”