After 32 years of fighting fires and serving his community, John Wilson is retiring from the El Dorado Fire Department Volunteers.
John started with the volunteers in February of 1989, just three months after his brother, David, signed on.
When asked how he got started, John laughed before beginning the story. He said as his brother tells it, John said, “I’ll do it if you do it,” but there is a little more to the story.
John recalled being at the lake with Volunteer Firefighter Zeke Reed’s sons when a big storm was coming in.
“Zeke’s wife, Shirley, said I need to join the reserves,” John recalled. “I don’t know why she said it.”
But it caused John to go to this brother. “I probably told him ‘if you do it, I’ll do it’,” he said. “It was because of Shirley telling me I needed to join the reserves. He got in three months sooner than I did, and I stayed two years longer.”
David retired in 2018 with 30 years as a volunteer. John said he and his brother worked well together and wherever one of them was, the other wasn't far behind.
John and his brother were part of what he calls the “second wave” of volunteers, coming in 10 years after the original group of volunteers. “We are the last of ‘who anybody can remember’,” he said.
John also has the most longevity of anyone at the department right now.
“It’s been fun,” he said. “It’s a good group of people down there.”
When he started, there was a strong family atmosphere with many father-son volunteers, cousins who volunteered and even a grandfather-grandson duo. There also was John and his brother.
“It was a family affair 30 years ago,” he said.
Over these 32 years, John has had several memorable fires he helped fight, including several all-nighters.
One he remembers is the fire in the pizza place on South Main.
“That was a cold winter night,” he said. “We had people in the back alley and it was like a skating rink back there. That’s where I actually lost a sledge hammer.” He said he didn’t know if he should tell on himself or not. “They had windows bricked up and wanted ventilation. You can’t take real big swings when you’re on a ladder. I made a couple of small holes and then took a bigger swing. It was cold. My gloves were frozen. I took one good swing and I didn’t have a sledge hammer anymore. It was gone. I think they finally found it inside later.” He laughed recalling the story.
Another big fire was at a donut shop and beauty salon on South Main, which also was an all-nighter. During another fire at Olive and South Main, he and his brother were in Wichita when it started, but when they got back to El Dorado and saw it burning, they got their gear and went to help.
John has seen a lot in his 32 years, including changes in equipment.
“In 1989 we didn’t have the gear we do now,” he said.
Their gear included a pair of boots that came up to their thighs, a bunker coat that came down to their knees, a helmet and a pair of gloves.
“Within a year or a year and a half, we had all of the new gear,” he said, “the new bunker pants, shorter boots. The gear has come a long way.”
The reserves also were involved in purchasing some of the department’s equipment. John said they bought the original thermal imaging cameras for the department and the original air compressor to fill the bottles through fund raisers they held. The reserves also helped out in other ways during John’s early years with the department. They helped with crowd control at Prairie Port, assisted with the Christmas parade and helped with storm watch.
John’s goal when he started was to volunteer at least 30 years, then “see what happens after that.”
“I’m almost 60 years old,” he said. “I know I can still do the work, but I’m starting to hurt in places that didn’t hurt before. It’s just becoming a younger person’s game. I’ve never been hurt, so do I want to try to push my luck?” He decided not to push his luck and to go ahead and retire, but he enjoyed his time as a volunteer and would encourage others to get involved.
“It’s a good way to get involved in the city,” he said. “It’s a good way to give back to the community and to understand how some of the things work in the city. The younger people, if even considering a career in fire service, volunteer first before you start taking all of your classes and see if you like it.”
Anyone interested in volunteering, can go to Fire Station No. 1 at 220 E. First and fill out an application.
A retirement reception will be held for John from 2 to 3 p.m. Sunday, April 25 at Fire Station No. 1, 220 E. First.