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A Firefighter's Life and Times

Deputy Chief James Gower announces retirement.

On April 21, James T.Gower, Deputy Chief, Fire Operation, Alexandria Fire Department, will mark his 39th anniversary of service to the city and citizens of Alexandria. On July 1, that service will end — at least officially.

Three days after graduating from high school in 1962, Gower left the family dairy farm outside Oakland, Md., and followed his older sister, Pat, to the Washington area. He came to Alexandria, rented a room at 204 W. Myrtle St., and went to work for Rawlings Floor Covering on South Patrick Street.

But his real interest soon turned to fire fighting. "I got interested in fire fighting through another employee, Bobby Norris, at the floor covering firm. He was a volunteer at Penn Daw and suggested I look into it," Gower said. That station, located just off Route 1, is part of Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department's network.

"As soon as I got involved I was hooked. I didn't want to do anything else. I even lived at the station. But I was only 19. You couldn't become full time until you were at least 21," Gower said.

"I knew Edward Trice at Station 201 on Prince Street. When I turned 20, I took the test and applied for a job with the Alexandria Fire Department. I went to work three days after I turned 21 and have been here ever since."

Instead of full classes of new recruits, the practice then was to hire one or two people at a time, according to Gower. Recruits had to have volunteer fire fighting experience as well as pass both a civil service examination and a demanding physical.

"Station 207 on Duke Street was used as a training station then. That's where I got my on-the-job indoctrination," Gower said. "I thought I'd died and gone to heaven when I got hired here."

There was also that high salary. "Starting pay was $5,425 a year. I thought I was rich. And you only paid $1.25 a day for meals. That covered two meals a day and our cook was a gourmet chief," Gower recalled.

AFTER HIS OJT, Gower was sent to Station 205 at 1210 Cameron Street. "Alexandria was a lot less affluent in those days. It was before redevelopment and the city was still pretty run down. This led to a lot of fires. We were very active. And as a firefighter that's exactly what your hired to do — fight fires."

In 1968, that analysis took on a whole new depth. "We were called into the District of Columbia following the assassination of Martin Luther King. Washington was burning and they just gave us building after building to fight," he reflected.

Gower has not only served with seven Alexandria fire chiefs during his career, but also as interim chief before former Chief Thomas Hawkins was hired and between Hawkins and the city's present chief, Gary Mesaris. As Deputy Chief, Fire Operations, he is responsible for all 147 firefighters, the department's training center with its four staff, and the four mechanics at the Fire Apparatus Maintenance Shop.

As Alexandria City Manager Philip Sunderland, jokingly put it, "Jim's tenure spans the department's development from horse drawn to space age." Sunderland added, quite seriously, "He's been a fantastic contributor to a department that has moved light years during his time. He will be extremely hard to replace."

That assessment was buttressed by Mesaris, who himself will mark his first year as chief in June. "He is a superior fire department manager with a level of experience and knowledge difficult to replace. But above all else, he is true gentleman."

As a 25 year friend of Gower, Mesaris stressed, "He is a firefighter's chief officer if ever there was one. He has truly earned a fulfilling retirement," he said.

IN ADDITION TO his present position and serving as interim chief, Gower has served as Deputy Chief, Administrative Services; Battalion Chief; Fire Captain and Lieutenant; and originally as fire fighter. He has garnered numerous awards from the Boys Scouts, Chamber of Commerce, and Sons of the American Revolution and holds certifications from a myriad sources in an array of specialties.

In 1978, at age 33, then Captain Gower was awarded Alexandria Olympic Boys Club's Special Achievement Award for saving the life of a neighbor while off duty. As reported in the April 4, Gazette of that year, while at home, he received an "urgent appeal" from a neighbor's 15-year-old son to help his mother who was choking on a piece of meat. Using his departmental emergency training, Gower was able to dislodge the obstruction and restore her to conscienceness.

For that action he was credited with saving her life. It noted, "Captain Gower was commended by his department for his action" and was recognized by the Boys Club for an "outstanding feat of humanitarian action."

Thomas Hawkins, who served as Alexandria Fire Chief prior to Mesaris, described Gower as "very dedicated to the community. He has positively impacted a lot of people's lives who aren't even aware of what he has done. He's a truly great guy."

According to Hawkins, when he first came to Alexandria from the Arlington Fire Department, he asked Gower if Alexandria had a "Task Force Alarm" system. Arlington's called for more than three pieces of equipment to be dispatched when ever one or more of three things occurred: there was heavy fire showing at a scene; people were trapped; and/or when equipment was going to held at a scene for more than 30 minutes.

"Yes, except that we keep it to two pieces with other controls," Gower answered. Then, as Hawkins related the story, Gower, asked him, 'Who's dumb idea was the Arlington procedure?' Hawkins' answer was, 'To tell the truth, it was mine.'

AFTER THAT, as they worked together over the years, it became a standing joke when a questionable idea was put forth to mutually ask, "I wonder who's dumb idea that was?"

Jack Beam, who now lives in Ashville, N.C., and works for the Buncombe County, Parks and Recreation Division, served as the city's fire chief from 1987 to 1993. He joined the Alexandria Fire Department a short time before Gower.

"He was one of my closest associates," Beam said. "You really need people like him when you are chief." Beam and Gower served together for 20-plus years. "We worked our way up through the ranks together," he acknowledged.

Gower's dedication has not been limited to Alexandria. Even prior to 9/11, when inter-jurisdictional cooperation and coordination became essential, Gower was devoting his knowledge and expertise to bringing about that result before it was popular.

"He has done an awful lot for the entire region," according to Mark Wheatley, assistant chief, Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department. "He worked very hard to get a mutual aid agreement among the COG [Council of Governments] fire chiefs. He succeeded where others had failed."

Wheatley added, "I have worked closely with Jim for more than 20 years. He has always been there when I needed him. I am very sorry professionally to see him retire. But, very happy for him."

Gower has witnessed and been a part of major changes over his 39- year professional career. "The biggest change is in the modernization of the apparatus. The business is much more specialized today. All our members are required to have many more certifications," he said.

"When I started most of the guys were World War II veterans. There were no female firefighters or medics. They were strictly in administrative positions. In those days we worked 72 hour weeks. Now the work week is 56 hours," Gower said.

"During my term as captain at Station 207, rules required everyone have an EMT [Emergency Medical Training] certificate. You also had to be a fire fighter as well. Now, we [Alexandria] have the model program in the area where it is no longer necessary to be a fire fighter to be EMS. That has also opened up opportunities for more females to be EMS," he explained.

"Firefighters have always been dedicated people. You have to love this profession to be able to do it. All the people behind the scenes are equally as important — administration, dispatch, mechanics. It takes a team to run a fire department. And safety is paramount," Gower said.

He also acknowledged, "9/11 changed everything. It showed us just what could happen. Now there is a lot of federal involvement that didn't exist before. You have to be constantly on the alert and ready for any emergency at any time. That is a ongoing requirement."

Gower admitted, "It's always a challenge to keep pride and performance at the forefront. But I have a true affection for all the people who work here. It truly is a family. When somebody is down, the department really comes behind them."

Gower characterized the department's future as "great. Right now we are one of the most well equipped departments I know. And our corps of battalion chiefs, officers and EMS supervisors is excellent."

Gower is equally enthusiastic about his own future. He and his wife of 35 years, Sharon, have recently moved from a large home in Manassas, which they built in 1983, to a townhouse in the new development of Belmont Bay Town Center on the Occoquan River just beyond Woodbridge. "There's a marina there and we just acquired our first boat last year," he said.

The Gowers met through Jim's original mentor in the fire fighting profession, Bobby Norris. Sharon is Norris' wife's sister. They have two married daughters and two grandchildren.

Their daughter Heidi, her husband, Shaw, and their two-year-old son, Mason James, just moved back to Alexandria from Albany, N.Y.

Daughter Holly lives in Boston with her husband Bill and their daughter, Virginia Lilly, who will one year old this month. A graduate of William and Mary College with a degree in education, Holly is now with a Boston investment firm. Prior to 9/11 she was a flight attendant with Delta.

AN AVID HOBBYIST woodworker, Gower had to give up his "complete woodworking shop" when they moved from their Manassas home. There, he not only refinished antique furniture but also built a grandfather clock. "This home's just too small for all that," he said.

But they still travel back to Manassas to attend their Assembly of God Church where he and Sharon have sung in the choir for the past 20-plus years. "It's been a very important part of our lives. We moved to Manassas as a result of attending that church," he pointed out.

Gower is also looking forward to visiting his 82-year-old parents who still live on that farm in Western Maryland. "I haven't had the time to get back to see them as often as I would like. I just want to do everything," he said.