Conner Retires — Again

Conner Retires — Again

Four decades of institutional knowledge produced a safer city.

<bt>Forty years after becoming Alexandria Fire Department's first paid cadet, Chief Fire Marshal Michael Conner has retired — for the second time.

Conner retired originally in 1998 as deputy chief of the department. But, that lasted eight months. He came back as chief fire marshal in early 1999 following the retirement of then Chief Fire Marshal Ray Nieves.

"I was fortunate enough to be rehired," Conner said on his last day in office, June 30. "But, now it's time to stop and smell the roses for a while."

He's looking forward to spending more time at the beach house he and his wife Linda, a nurse with Inova Health System's Home Health Care, have at Colonial Beach, Va. and visiting with their four grown children, all of whom live in the area except for their youngest daughter who is a resident of San Antonio, Texas. "That's on the travel schedule," he said.

However, Conner has no plans to be rocking-chair bound. "I'm going to do consulting work in code analysis and assistance throughout the Washington metro area," he said.

"I've learned an awful lot in this job and I think there is a real need for my skills in the private sector. It's been exciting reviewing all the site plans and working with the developers through all the changes that have taken place in this city," Conner said.

IT STARTED in 1965 on his 18th birthday, before he graduated from Alexandria's George Washington High School. "I was too young to join the department so I started as a volunteer at Station 204. It had just moved from what is now Portner's restaurant to its present location on Second Street," Conner said.

"Being assigned to the headquarters station gave me the opportunity to talk a lot with the Chief Bernard J. Padgett. He knew how much I wanted to join the department so in September 1965 I became the first paid cadet," he said.

"When I graduated in 1966 I was still too young to be hired on a full-time basis. Also, Uncle Sam had his eye on me since Viet Nam was heating up. So I joined the Coast Guard figuring that would keep me from going to Viet Nam," he said.

"That proved to be a wrong guess. After enlisting in July 1966 I was assigned to the Cutter Hamilton. It was the first 378-foot Cutter built for the Coast Guard and we ended up in Viet Nam 1969-70," Conner said.

"But, my love of firefighting came in handy there also. While in the Coast Guard I served as a damage control petty officer and ship board firefighter," he said.

Upon release from the Coast Guard in 1970 Conner returned to Alexandria intending to join the Fire Department. "I actually took the department's entrance exam aboard ship as we were coming through the Panama Canal," Conner said.

However, he found there were only three openings available in the Fire Department at that time. But, there were 17 openings in the Police Department. So he switched his application.

"When Chief Padgett heard what I had done he had the application switched back to the Fire Department and that started my professional career. He wanted me in the Fire Department," Conner said.

FROM 1970 TO 1981 he served as a firefighter and EMT. In 1981, he was promoted to deputy fire marshal and became chief fire marshal in 1983. In 1993 he was named deputy fire chief and remained that until his initial retirement in 1998.

Since Conner's return in 1999 there have been a host of changes in the department as well as in approaches to solving what he described as "Alexandria's fire problems." His role in those changes were acknowledged by Fire Chief Gary Mesaris.

"Mike Conner has spent 40 years in service to the residents of Alexandria, serving in many capacities but always with the goal of protecting life and preserving property. The people of Alexandria have benefitted from his commitment to their well being. He will be missed," Mesaris said.

That was echoed by one of Connor's closest friends, Pat Troy, owner of Ireland's Own Restaurant. "I've known Mike since 1980 when I opened my restaurant. He's been a fixture there and has always been extremely helpful. His job was always his top priority. He's the best I've ever known," Troy said.

"He's always been a great leader and always wanted to get things done. He didn't get bogged down in bureaucracy. He gave great service to this city. I'm going to miss him and his great sense of humor," he said.

Conner's years of service to Alexandria were also cited by Assistant City Manager Michele Evans. "Mike Conner has been a tremendous asset to this city government. He has been a truly dedicated city employee who has made a difference," she said.

Included in that difference has been the reduction of serious fires, according to Conner. "It used to be we'd have a major fire almost every weekend," he said.

"Our biggest problem today is density. The buildings going up are taller and closer together. We are going to have to strive to increase our public outreach," Conner said.

"With our very diverse community now, we really have to increase our public information and education efforts. It's a real balancing act, trying to cram this many people into a city this size and still provide adequate fire protection. Everyone wants to build cheaper and still maintain fire safety," Conner said.

"We are still a small town with big city fire problems. When I started we had six fire stations. Now we are considering building our ninth," he said.

That continuing analysis and vision of future needs and requirements by Conner, even on his last day, exemplifies Chief Deputy Fire Marshal Robert Luckett's appraisal of Conner. "While Mike Conner will no longer be in the office of chief fire marshal he will always be the office of the Chief Fire Marshal, no matter who follows him," Luckett said.

Born and raised in Rosemont, Conner has a perspective of Alexandria's needs, for today and tomorrow, when it comes to fire safety, based on his knowledge as a life-time resident. "I can remember as a kid seeing a sign stretched across King Street — "Alexandria reaches 17,000." It's been fun being a part of it," he said.