Recollections…A Spotlight On Leadership

Recollections…A Spotlight On Leadership

Over the last number of years, I have amassed significant information and research on quite a few fire service leaders from our distant past, many of whom I have known personally.  So, I have decided to put my research and personal recollections to pen in hopes that this current generation of firefighters and those who follow may at least retain the names of these vanguards and respect their contributions.  Keep in mind that my recollections have a unique and personal value which can hardly be captured by other writers because of my close access to the individual’s heart and thinking.

As this writer has previously revealed in “A Legacy That Lives On” (a book published by the Association and written by me) our Association was organized in 1905 and has been piloted by 74 Presidents over our 115-year history.  It has been my unique privilege to know or have worked with 64 of these individuals during my career, all of whom are written about in the book.  However, in the following blogs to be scripted over the next several months, I wish to showcase other leaders and personalities who have contributed significantly to where we are today and whose names most folks have never heard or have long forgotten. 


Jesse C. Johnson

South Carolina’s First State Fire Marshal

Jesse Johnson was born on April 8, 1910, the youngest of seven children in a very rural portion of Horry County.  His father was a sharecropper/farmer who grew mainly tobacco and cotton in the rich soils near Cool Springs.  Sadly, Jesse’s mother died in childbirth in 1913, and the eighth child also passed away.  He was left at the age of 3 to be cared for by his father and the other children to some degree.  Tragically, a year later, Jesse, Sr. developed pneumonia and died.   In conversations I had in later years with Jesse, his father’s deathbed desire was that his children remain together and be cared for at the Epworth Orphanage in Columbia if at all possible.

Six of the children were accepted at Epworth, but the oldest boy was too old to be admitted.  Happily, all six of the children finished high school at the orphanage and several went on to obtain college educations.  Jesse, however, was unable to go to college due to the Great Depression which required him to seek employment in order to survive.

At this point let’s backtrack a bit to explore some of Jesse Johnson’s early experiences at the Epworth Orphanage that had a hand in shaping his character, personality, and ultimately his career in the fire service.  I knew Mr. Johnson for over 20 years beginning around 1966 until his death in 1987, and even worked for him from 1973 to 1977.   Throughout those years of our friendship, he shared many stories, experiences, and personal reflections with me that remain very clear in my memory.  The most remarkable story which ultimately laid the foundation for his passion for the fire service involved some youthful and mischievous deeds.

Apparently while a youngster living at the Epworth Orphanage, Mr. Johnson ran around with a number of boys who were often inclined to be involved in all sorts of ill-behavior.  It seems that on a number of occasions, these boys found great delight in pulling one of two fire alarm boxes on Sunday nights near the orphanage and close enough to “Shandon Methodist Church that they could hear the choir singing.” 

According to Mr. Johnson in an interview in 1975 with a reporter for Dictograph Security Systems, “we slowly moved forward until we could see the red light over the street fire alarm box. We drew straws as to who should pull the alarm.  I was selected.  I moved out of the undergrowth onto the sidewalk and looked in all directions for any movement that might indicate I was being watched.”

Mr. Johnson went on to say, “I dashed the remaining 20 yards to the box; pulled down the door; pulled down the hook-button and listened for a moment to hear it click out its code location to the City of Columbia Fire Department.  My heart pounding one hundred beats a minute—I quickly ran back to the underbrush and we all streaked off to what we thought was a safe distance…and listened.”

The story continues by Mr. Johnson sharing that “it was only a matter of seconds before we heard sirens and powerful motors screaming in the far distance.  As the fire engines came closer and closer, louder and louder, towards the street box, the more tense and excited we became.  Our excitement increased as the sounds of sirens and motors turned off Devine Street and headed in our direction, red lights flashing, bells and sirens sounding.  A bunch of kids couldn’t be more thrilled than being at the location, near those beautiful red fire trucks, seeing the firemen close-up in their turn-out gear.  Talk about heroes! We kids just worshipped them!”

Mr. Johnson said in the interview that “I eased up close to the Fire Chief to hear him say, ‘False alarm men.  Back to the station house.’  Our heroes mounted their trucks, ringing their bells as they revved up their motors and quickly vanished into the night.  Of course, typical of any group that’s up to mischief, there was one who had to ‘snitch’ to the officials on the rest of us.”

As Mr. Johnson revealed to me in several conversations, the administrator of the orphanage reached out to Columbia Fire Chief A. McC Marsh (President of our Association in 1932-1937) to handle any disciplinary proceedings that he might require of these lawbreakers.  Chief Marsh picked all five boys up the next morning and drove them to Columbia’s only fire station at the time.  While the boys were excited to ride in the Chief’s car, their exhilaration soon turned to fear when Chief Marsh’s car backed into the station.  It seems that practically all the firemen on that shift were lined up waiting for their arrival, and they didn’t look happy or much like the kindhearted heroes Jesse and the gang observed at the box alarms.

But, instead of punishment, Chief Marsh provided them with a tour of the fire station and finally coached them in the dangers and risks of turning in false alarms.  Mr. Johnson revealed also that the compassionate chief encouraged the boys to come by the station when convenient.  They were even allowed to help wash the engines, clean hose, and perform other duties to keep them occupied.

Few know that Chief Marsh and his family lived on the second floor of the fire station, and Jesse was invited to visit them on many occasions, even eating Holiday meals with the Chief and his family.  As the Dictograph feature notes, “The personal interest of Fire Chief Marsh in the orphaned lad added an incentive that eventually led to Johnson’s choice of the fire service as a career.”  At the age of 22 and with the urging of Chief Marsh in 1932, Jesse Johnson applied for a position with the fire department and was appointed as a probationary fireman, beating out many other applicants.  I recall Mr. Johnson beaming with pride and his face baring a crafty smile as he told this story many times during our relationship.

To make a long story short, Mr. Johnson’s career with the Columbia Fire Department allowed him to be assigned to engine companies, ladder companies, the service truck, and even drove the Chief on occasion to calls.  In 1944, Mr. Johnson was taken off the line and assigned to the Fire Prevention Bureau doing fire inspections, plans review, public fire safety education, and fire investigations.  In the late 40’s, Mr. Johnson  was promoted to a Battalion Chief’s position where he became a well-known and respected figure throughout the City of Columbia.  He made friends with some very influential and notable political figures in the meantime which eventually paid big dividends for him by opening a footing and opportunities on a statewide level.

In 1951, Mr. Johnson left the Columbia Fire Department to accept the position of Chief Deputy Fire Marshal under State Insurance Commissioner, D. D. “Pat” Murphy, who by law was the “ex-officio” State Fire Marshal.  For more than a decade, Mr. Johnson covered the state by himself making fire safety inspections in public buildings, and, at the same time, building strong relationships with the fire service.  In 1966, legislation was introduced and passed in the General Assembly making the State Fire Marshal’s Office an independent agency under the Division of General Services which ultimately removed the Insurance Commissioner from that position.  Mr. Johnson was appointed the first State Fire Marshal and given nearly 10 Deputy Fire Marshals and support staff to run his office.

This writer became acquainted with Mr. Johnson in the late 60’s after joining the Manning Fire Department as a volunteer.  He became a fairly frequent visitor to our station when traveling through the Pee Dee area which afforded us the opportunity to get to know each other.   He was always invited to be our department’s guest at every Christmas banquet, and rarely did he ever turn down an invitation.  Also, he and I would often engage in conversations at some point during each annual conference of the Firemen’s Association.

In 1972, I was appointed by then President Charlie Denny to serve on the Fire School Committee of the Association as their volunteer representative at a time we were seeking to establish a State Fire Academy.  Chief Denny and the committee made numbers of trips to Columbia to meet with legislators about funding an academy, and most often would stop by Mr. Johnson’s office on 300 Gervais Street to pick his brain about state government politics and securing his help in working the General Assembly for their support.

Move forward to 1973 when I received a very unexpected visit from Jesse Johnson’s boss, Mr. Furman McEachern, Executive Director of the Budget and Control Board.  I had never met Mr. McEachern, but I knew he was one of the most powerful leaders in state government, right up there with the Governor, and could not fathom why on earth he wanted to talk with me.  Well, we met in Sumter at a local restaurant, and I soon found out that he was offering me a position, at Jesse Johnson’s recommendation, with the Fire Marshal’s Office as a Deputy State Fire Marshal/Training Specialist.  

I went to work with Mr. Johnson and his team in the summer of 1973, and, my, what opportunities to grow professionally were given to me and at the same time thrust me into a position to make a difference on a much greater level.  I shall forever be grateful to Jesse Johnson for seeing something in me worth taking a chance.  My job title was Training Specialist, but Mr. Johnson tagged on “Deputy State Fire Marshal” for reasons which in short order became obvious.  I traveled the state developing and conducting fire safety training programs in schools, hospitals, nursing facilities, high-rise homes for the elderly, and other public buildings.  In addition, Mr. Johnson often detailed me to investigate large loss fires, fatal fires, or fires where significant public interest was to be expected, much like our Fire Marshal’s CLEAR Team today who go out to collect pertinent fire and life safety data.

First State Fire Marshal, Jesse Johnson, holding our current State Fire Marshal, Jonathan Jones at age 6 mos. during annual Conference in Myrtle Beach (1977).

During my four years in the Fire Marshal’s Office, Mr. Johnson often invited me to accompany him or represent him on trips to national meetings of the Fire Marshal’s Association of North America, NFPA, and various codes seminars.  He introduced me to some of the national “movers and shakers” in that day…leaders like Robbie Robertson, Maryland State Fire Marshal who brokered Congress for the National Fire Academy; Joe Dolan, Chief Fire Marshal for the City of Boston who was on the first engine to the Coconut Grove Fire; Howard Boyd, Chief Fire Marshal for Metro Nashville; Howard Tipton, the 1st Administrator of the National Fire Prevention and Control Administration; Cathy Lohr the N. C. Public Education Specialist; Calvin “Moon” Wyrick from Greensboro and frequent guest in our state; and the list goes on and on.  These were individuals who opened doors for me in later life all because Jesse Johnson took me under his wing.  Looking back, I now realize Mr. Johnson was grooming me for a far more important job.

Jesse Johnson was a crusty man, not big in stature, given to occasional profanity, adult beverages and cigarettes, and always an advocate for the fire service.  According to Pat Fox who worked for Jesse the longest, Jesse was a lengthy conversationalist who enjoyed a captive audience. Anyone who talked with him for a few minutes knew he had come up hard for he was very opinionated and never wavered in a worthwhile political fight. For a period of time, Jesse was one of the most politically connected people in state government.  He surrounded himself with a number of employees who were politically linked to powerhouses like Speaker of the House of Representatives, Sol Blatt and President Pro Tempore Edgar Brown both from Barnwell, Senator Marion Gressette from St. Matthews, Senator John Drummond from Greenwood, Senator Rembert Dennis from Moncks Corner, Governors McNair and West to name a few.

However, in 1976 and 1977, the political tides began to turn against Jesse Johnson when the Budget and Control Board decided to reorganize the Fire Marshal’s Office and make it into the Division of Fire and Life Safety.  Those political powerhouses that Jesse counted on for support were retiring and being replaced by less loyal political figures. Mr. Johnson was given the title of “Fire and Life Safety Inspector”, and a bureaucrat from State TEC having no fire service experience was brought in as the interim State Fire Marshal.  Fire inspections and enforcement of the codes were systematically being weakened because the office was becoming very biased against serious codes enforcement. This shift in organization and leadership did not sit well with the state’s fire service which was transforming into a voice to reckon with and a political adversary against those who would weaken the authority of the State Fire Marshal.

In an effort to appease, placate and quiet down the fire service, the new interim Fire Marshal called me into his office in the fall of 1977 to talk.  He told me that Mr. Johnson was on his way out, and the Board wished to offer me the job of State Fire Marshal in the reorganization of the office.  I was stunned with the offer to say the least and told him I would have to first talk this over with my wife. I also asked if Mr. Johnson knew of these plans, and the answer was an emphatic “no.”  It was at this point I knew Mr. Johnson had groomed me for his job, but now I would not have any part of this “coup d’ etat.

The job would have increased my salary five times over but, at the same time, would have propelled me into unfamiliar circles of power and pressure which I did not aspire.  Truthfully, I knew what my answer would be before I left his office, but I needed a few days to figure a game plan for my future.  

I was a nervous wreck when I returned the following week to give the interim Fire Marshal my answer about the position.  The answer did not sit well with the gentleman for he stood from behind his desk, reached over and shook his finger in my face and said, “Boy, you will regret the day you ever turned me down.”  It was miserable the next few weeks and months. The leadership within the office began to search for any reason to fire me and create further division within the fire service.  Fortunately for me, God opened another door in the summer of 1977 when I was offered the job of Clarendon County’s first Fire Chief.  I resigned my position with the Division of Fire and Life Safety with a clean record and reputation.

I felt very badly for Jesse Johnson during this time of his witnessing the systematic downgrading of the office he worked so hard to build.  On December 16, 1977, Mr. Johnson tendered his letter of resignation effective December 31, 1977, beating those in power from firing him and in protest of his demotion.  Several days later, Richard Mincey, the Association’s lobbyist, received a lengthy typed written document from Mr. Johnson which spelled out the reasons for his resignation, issues impacting and hurting the fire service, and the ultimate solution for the State Fire Marshal’s Office. 

In part, Mr. Johnson concluded his manuscript by saying, “I strongly urge my many thousands of friends in the state to support a bill that would establish a State Fire Commission, independent of the Division of General Services.  The passage of the Bill for a Fire Commission would not only restore the specific duties and responsibilities of the State Fire Marshal’s Office but would most certainly make South Carolina safer from fire.”

At the time of Mr. Johnson’s resignation, the state’s fire service had become aware of the bureaucratic undermining of his office and had already commenced a movement to form a State Fire Commission which would regain the office’s identity of responsibility as originally mandated by the Legislature. And, Mr. Johnson knew that under current conditions, a State Fire Commission was the only solution which could bring the new Fire Academy and the Fire Marshal’s Office together under one umbrella…coined and referred to by Richard Mincey as the “Fire Focal Point”, and still used today. 

Jesse Johnson was truly a trailblazer whose leadership was never fully appreciated or valued until he left office as the State Fire Marshal.  I find it remarkable that he ran a “one-man” operation for 13 years and then crafted a model organization that expanded over time to become recognized nation-wide.  Jesse brought recognition to the office and the state when he was elected President of the Fire Marshals’ Association of North America.  He was distinguished by receiving many other awards over his 45-year career.  He was an early proponent for public fire safety education (today it’s call Community Risk Reduction); he championed fire investigations as a tool for data research and prevention (early CLEAR Team concept); he was one of few State Fire Marshals to adopt the early version of the NFIRS fire reporting system in 1976; he was an advocate for coordinating fire inspections with DSS, Department of Education, Corrections, DHEC, and Mental Health; he fought to protect the public from the recklessness of certain special interest groups; brought required standardized training into the office for his inspectors; and continually encouraged local fire departments to become more proficient in their inspections programs.

In a Greenville Piedmont article dated February 6, 1978, Mr. Johnson was quoted as saying, “I have done my best and I’m proud.  I am not perfect but if I had the opportunity to do it all again, I don’t believe I would change one thing.” 

Jesse Johnson had a very interesting personal and more private side to life than just the fire service.  He married Linnie Rae Aiken in 1932, the same year he joined the fire department.  Linnie Rae was a stay-at-home mom and was quite talented and artistic. They had four children—Charles Ray, Warren, Rita and Carolyn—and now, at last count, have five granddaughters.  Their children are all successful citizens and very proud of their heritage. 

Mr. Johnson was a very talented man who loved music.  In fact, at one point in his life he considered a career in music.  He loved to sing and even took voice lessons as a tenor soloist.  His love for music allowed him to sing solo in some of Columbia’s largest churches. He spoke often in later years that he had thoughts of becoming a singer for some evangelist like the famous Billy Sunday.  During the ‘60s and ‘70s Jesse sang on occasion at our Association’s Memorial Services and entertained at our banquets with a local quartet.

The Fire Marshal always bragged to me about all of his children and grandchildren, recapping their accomplishments with pride.  As somewhat of an art and musical entrepreneur, Jesse often expressed unique interest in his son, Warren Edward Johnson, who is quite the artist.  Today, Warren Edward is better recognized as “Blue Sky” and is known for his paintings, murals, and sculptures, both in the Columbia area as well around the world. He is probably most recognized for his illusionary mural on Marion Street in Columbia, entitled “Tunnelvision.”  Also, at the same location is the world’s largest fire hydrant from which he fabricated out of metal and calls it “Busted Plug Plaza.”

Jesse was an accomplished checker player as evidenced by his membership into the American Checker Association and the State Checker Association.  Only a few courageous souls would ever challenge him to a game.  Also, he loved to fish but rarely found the time to enjoy the out-of-doors.

Mr. Johnson was a creative and articulate writer and put many of his thoughts about politics and the fire service to paper.  I’m sure his faithful administrative assistant, Pat Fox, spent many an hour taking dictation in short hand and then typing his accounts and found pleasure in helping him craft these gems.  Two of his more notorious articles are entitled “Too Old To Cry, But It Hurts Too Much To Laugh,” and “My View From The Back Seat.”

Jesse Johnson never forgot his roots and always gave credit to others for his accomplishments.  He once said, “we (the family) all are very grateful to the Methodist churches throughout the State of South Carolina for giving us the opportunity to get a high school education, and for two of us to attend college, and for providing for us all those years.”  He also never failed to impart acknowledgement to his staff and the fire service for their “perseverance, hard work and dedication” in helping him carry out his vision and lay the foundation for what we have today in our State Fire programs.  Mr. Johnson died on December 1, 1987 and was buried in Greenlawn Memorial Park in Columbia.

There are a number of life lessons I learned from Jesse Johnson during the time I got to know him that benefited me personally and professionally.  First, in any leadership position or role, a leader must begin early building a committed central core of folks who “get it” and is capable of seizing your vision for the organization/project.  Second, Jesse taught me to go after individuals who possess diverse talents,  skills, and experiences.  Third, the Ole Fire Marshal stressed to his staff allegiance and trustworthiness to the mission.  And, finally, Mr. Johnson understood and practiced assigning responsibility to those employees who had the ability to produce desired results.

Thank you, Jesse Johnson…job well done!

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