After nearly 50 years as Lesslie fire chief, Jerry Williams will be 'tough act to follow'

Jerry Williams is leaving his post after almost 50 years as chief of the Lesslie Fire Department.
Jerry Williams is leaving his post after almost 50 years as chief of the Lesslie Fire Department.

LESSLIE -- The history of the Lesslie Volunteer Fire Department is pretty much Jerry Williams' history.

Williams became chief of the department in 1959. He's been chief ever since, except for a stint from 1977 to 1982 when he served on the first York County Council. Even then, he advocated for local fire departments.

The department's longtime leader will step aside for a new chief Jan. 1. As sure as fire trucks are red, people say the place won't be the same without him at the forefront.

Williams is the guy who others say knows everything about everything when it comes to fire trucks.

He began his career in firefighting in 1955, a few months after the department was started.

Then-17-year-old Williams heard a fire truck go by with its siren blaring and hopped on his motorcycle to see what was going on. Turns out there was a fire at the cotton gin.

When the water in the fire truck ran out, the firefighters couldn't figure out how to refill it from a nearby pond. Williams, whose father drilled wells and did plumbing, pulled out the manual and solved the problem.

After that, he was hooked.

In a way, firefighting was kind of a hobby for Williams.

"Anybody that's never been one really doesn't understand why we do what we do," he said.

Williams was there when the department was one truck in a building with a dirt floor. He was first elected chief in 1959 and has helped the department grow since.

"He has always had a vision for this fire department," said Deputy Chief Larry McConnell, who will take over as chief Jan. 1. "He knew where it was going. It wasn't going to be just a small rural fire department."

No bigger tribute

In his more than 50 years in the field, Williams has left permanent marks on the firefighting community locally and across the state.

He has served as president of the S.C. State Firefighters' Association and the S.C. State Association of Fire Chiefs, a rarity for a volunteer chief. He's been firefighter and fire chief of the year and has been inducted into the S.C. Firefighters Hall of Fame.

Trucks designed and built by Williams are on roads across South Carolina.

Williams and his grandson were the models for the S.C. Firefighter's Memorial in Columbia, and York County fire departments spearheaded the effort to fund the memorial.

The York County Fire Training Center is a testament to Williams' years of hard work, said York County Fire Marshal Randy Thompson.

Williams served as director of the center from 1985 until 2000.

"I think Jerry left some big shoes to be filled when he retired from here, but he left the people he supervised with the skills to do that," Thompson said. "I don't know of any bigger tribute that could be used for somebody than (if) you left people with the skills to fill your position, trained and ready to do that."

Williams helped develop the training program now used by most departments in the county and developed a program for the replacement of fire trucks.

Williams took a break as chief when he was elected to the first York County Council in 1976.

The council marked a switch to home rule. In the past, local decisions were made by the legislative delegation.

Williams said his involvement in county government was inspired by a desire to curtail inappropriate spending.

"He really not only represented the people of the Catawba township area and his district well, he represented the fire departments all over the county very well," said Bayles Mack, a Fort Mill attorney who was chairman of the council during Williams' first term. "He had York County government at heart and always wanted to do the right thing."

'Prouder than anything'

Through his years of service, Williams made friends and acquaintances all over the country.

"No matter where you're at, no matter if it's a little Podunk town ... you go there and it's just like a group of brothers," he said.

Williams won't stop fighting fires in Lesslie, he just won't be in charge anymore. By his side will be his son, Johnny Williams, and his grandson, Stevie -- the only three-generation family believed to have worked at the department at one time. Williams' wife, who also is named Jeri, volunteers at the department, too.

"That probably made me prouder than anything, knowing that Johnny was here and his son would want to come on the same way," he said. "I just hope they both want to stay on as long as I did."

Although the retiring chief was modest talking about his accomplishments, incoming chief McConnell was not, calling Williams "a hero."

"Jerry's a tough act to follow, so I'm just going to start another play," McConnell said. "Nobody could ever do what Jerry did."