CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- For 23 years, Sterling Lewis taught and coached at Shady Spring High School in Raleigh County. It was the realization of a boyhood dream.
Joining the Beaver Volunteer Fire Department sent his life in a new direction. The exhilarating, death-defying challenge of battling a devouring inferno infused him with a powerful sense of purpose that influenced his decisions during 13 years as state fire marshal.
He retired last month at 62.
His biography notes two terms in the House of Delegates, an eye-opening experience he would not care to repeat.
He's tall and robust, forceful and outspoken with a booming this-means-business voice. Tempering it all is a folksy way of speaking that reflects his small-town Raleigh County roots.
"I was born and raised in Raleigh County. Dad owned a little grocery store.
"I just wanted to be a football player. I played at Shady Spring High and played one year at Concord and two years at West Virginia Tech. After football, I wanted to coach.
"I went to Concord just to play football. I figured out too late that you had to go to class. In the eighth game of the year, I got a brain concussion and went blind in my right eye and I had headaches. I was flunking anyway. I made an A in P.E. and failed everything else.
"I came home because of the headaches. That went away, and I did get my sight back. Dad put me to work in the store. I think he was trying to make a point: See, you should have gotten that education.
"He sent me up to Beckley College. I spent two years there getting my points up and then went to Tech and finished there.
"At Beckley College, I drove a pop truck and bread truck. It showed me what hard work really was. Some of my runs, I went in at 4 in the morning and got home at 7 at night. Dad was very instrumental in teaching me that working hard would pay off.
"I did real well at Tech. I ended up with a 3.2 grade average. My now ex-wife pushed me and assisted. I really appreciate her for giving me two wonderful kids and helping me get a college education.
"I went back to Shady Spring as a teacher and football coach. I taught driver's ed for 26 years. My entire goal in life was reached by the time I was 23. But then, I had other goals.
"Years ago, teaching was one of the most rewarding professions because you didn't have interference from federal and state government and the county boards.
"In the mid-'80s, it became more about paperwork and teacher qualification. The education system has diverted away from teaching kids to testing, testing, testing and making somebody look good at the federal or state level.
"My dad was in the Legislature for five terms. While I was teaching, I also became a member of the Legislature, an interesting experience that I wouldn't want to do again. I served two terms.
"In the fire marshal's office, we enforce the law. It's either right or it's wrong. In the Legislature, if it gets me re-elected, it's right. If it won't get me re-elected, that's no good for the state. There's too much deal-making.
"I went back to the statehouse as a special assistant for House Speaker Bob Kiss. That was better because I didn't have to worry about getting re-elected.
"The best part of my working career was coming to the fire marshal's office. A lot of it stemmed from my years as a firefighter. In the early '80s, I joined the Beaver Volunteer Fire Department.
"I didn't know if I had the nerve to walk into a building on fire while everybody else was running out. They say if you get sawdust in your blood, you will stay with the circus. I got that firefighter mentality. It consumed me, the idea that this inferno will destroy everything if you don't stop it.