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Fighting fire sparked state marshal stint

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.

"You go in those structures, and a roof falls in and a floor falls in and electrical wires start arcing, and you have to go in and kill the beast.

"It's one of the most exhilarating things I've ever done. The heat goes to a tremendous level. And the noise is noise you don't hear on the street, the popping and cracking. You give it everything you've got. If you don't, you could not come back out.

"Beaver was one of the top fire departments in the state. We had crash teams for Raleigh Airport that I set up, and we had confined space teams for people who get stuck in sewer pipes. I sent people to Florida to train for that.

"Between inspections and investigations, no two days were the same. It may be a fire, but it's always a different fire, a gas well explosion or a chemical plant explosion. No two fires are alike.

"We had that propane explosion in Ghent, the Little General Store. That being my home, the captain who was killed there, his wife and sister were my high school classmates.

"We were at a press conference and somebody from AP asked me, 'You seem to be taking this personally.' Anytime I've got dead people, you're damned right I take it personally. And people losing their property, it's all personal. I felt bad all the time, for the people.

"The sad part is, you finally get to the age where you have to back off. It's a young person's game. You have to back off not only for your safety, but the safety of the people you work with.

"In 2004, my house caught on fire. So I've experienced it from going in to put the fire out, to coming to the fire marshal's office and saying where and why the fire started to, 'Oh my, it's my house!'

"I've had nearly 20 years of fire service experience, 10 years as a fire chief. I was in fire service from the early '80s until I took this job in 2000.

"One of the things I was most proud of was starting a new division called fire department services. You've got four divisions -- inspections, investigations, public education, administration and now, fire department services.

"You've got approximately 447 fire departments. We only had time to deal with the problem fire departments. That's the only time we could go sit with them and do evaluations. So I started a division with a supervisor and four inspectors and started doing evaluations.

"My whole intent was to help the fire departments. It did help tremendously, but if a department wasn't up to snuff, I had to report that to the fire commission and put them in a bad light.

"That division was a big deal because it got a lot more training for the fire departments, mainly for chief officers. Many of the leaders making the call to send firefighters in didn't have any training. A lot still resist. They'll say, 'I've been in fire service for 20 years. You just spray water.' Well, that's one way, and that's one of the reasons we've got 100-some names up here on the memorial.

"One thing I left undone is residential sprinklers. I have preached for years, if you don't want to kill people, put residential sprinklers in new construction. You go to a legislative meeting and they say, 'Well, Mr. Fire Marshal, aren't smoke detectors just as good?'

"I'd say, 'If you've noticed, there is no water coming out of a smoke detector.' They say, 'What if it goes off and my house gets all wet?' I say, 'When my firefighters get there, they will probably throw 15,000 gallons of water where a sprinkler system may give you 200 gallons and hold it down until the fire department gets there to knock it out.

"As for the family there asleep, if the smoke detectors go off, if they haven't taken the batteries out to put in their kid's Atari, that family hopefully will get a run. If that run goes through the fire room, they will come out crispy critters. If sprinklers are in there, you are going to get out.

"My dad instilled in me that anything you do, give it everything you can. I feel I gave everything 100 percent. A lot of things didn't work. I made mistakes. My father also said that the only way you can't make a mistake is to do nothing.

"When I was teaching, I was going to retire at 55. When I got here, I was enjoying my job, so I decided to go to 62, maybe longer. My cardiologist said I probably have 15 years of doing what I want to do before things start happening. He said, 'For every year you work from 62, you are taking a year off of that.' It made a lot of sense to me.

"The night after my last day was the first morning in 41 years I haven't gone to school or gone to work. This summer, I'm going to do absolutely nothing.

"I have a houseboat on a lake in Kentucky. I'm going to go down and relax and regroup. I've had a lot of offers for consulting and lobbying, but when I think about putting a suit on again, I don't know if I want to go back. I'm going to take a year to see if I get bored.

"I do some traveling on the motorcycle, but I'm not a motor home travel person. I've got a guitar on the houseboat, and I pick a little. It's the most relaxing thing in the world, but I'm almost getting too lazy even for that."Reach Sandy Wells at sandyw@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5173.


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