Battalion chief set to retire from fire department after 28 years

Mar. 23, 2013 @ 02:09 PM

His position might get filled but there’s no way he can be replaced because of his experience, leadership, care and the best corned beef and cabbage.

Henderson Fire Department Battalion Chief Johnnie Ausborn will be missed when he steps down from 28 years of firefighting next week.

In the 1980s, the tough-guy welder came from a career at the Newport News shipyards back home to Henderson where he had been a 1970 graduate of Henderson High.

On Feb. 8, 1985, it was then-Chief Ranger Wilkerson who hired him on with the fraternity of firefighters, and they did things the way they did it back then. The quick way down to the fire trucks was the sliding pole, and firefighters would grab hold of an engine truck’s tailboard for their emergency ride out, rain or shine.

According to Ausborn, he didn’t have much experience fighting fires, just some volunteering with the shipyard fire brigade that inspired his interest in firefighting.

“I think he went on a gut feeling and hired me,” he said.

Ausborn depended on men like the chief, Bruce Stainback, Eddie Jackson, Duke Choplin and Spencer Moseley to learn his way.

In time, he made engineer in the mid-1990s, then lieutenant, A-shift in 1999 and finally battalion chief in 2007.

“All of them guys, they helped me, trained me,” Ausborn said. “They helped me become a good firefighter.”

Newly in charge of training back then was Danny Wilkerson, now the fire department chief after his father Ranger Wilkerson.

Danny Wilkerson said that Ausborn represents an old-school generation of firefighter who is always dependable because of an unwavering work ethic.

“I was just talking about it,” Wilkerson said, “after him I will be the oldest member of the fire department. I am truly going to miss him. He is a friend of mine, has been always. He came up hard and worked hard, a very strong leader with a strong work ethic, and really cool under fire.”

Younger firefighters of today see him as more than a leader: a legend is more like it.

“The fire department is losing a good man, dependable, basically the last of a breed,” Michael Fleming said. “With him there, you don’t have to worry about anything. It is like you know he’s going to take care of you.”

Fleming added, “and he makes the best corned beef and cabbage you’ve ever had.”

Assistant Chief Steve Cordell said, “He also makes the best chili beans in the world. He won the (downtown Henderson) chili cook-off one year.”

Cordell said over his own 20 years with the Henderson firefighters, Ausborn’s cooking was a welcome part of station house living, and it was Ausborn who trained and mentored him.

“He’s been here ever since I started,” Cordell said. “He’s pretty much taught me everything I know, mentoring me my entire career.

“You can’t replace him,” Cordell added, “the knowledge and expertise that he brings. You can fill the position, but you can’t replace him.”

Ausborn said there sure have been big changes over the years. The National Fire Protection Agency has pretty much cut out the tailboard riding. Firefighters now ride inside.

“When I first got here, we were doing that,” he said. “I always liked it, even in thunder, though that was a time it would kind of make you think.”

Back then, there were more structure fires, more industrial-related mishaps and less home preparation for fire safety. Some changes have been a struggle. Some changes have made things better.

“Back then, if you had a fire at Harriet Henderson Yarns, you knew it was going to be big,” Ausborn said. “They had their own fire brigades there, and they’d call if it got too big.”

Training of new firefighters has become more systematic, and there is better training opportunity with programs at Vance-Granville Community College nearby.

“The community college helped us bring training here,” Ausborn said.

Ausborn said that on the day he came in for his hiring interview there was a deadly fire on Breckenridge Street in which seven children died. Fast forward about 20 years and a fire on Elizabeth Street took two young lives.

It took unforgettable tragedies like that to draw more and more emphasis on fire safety training for citizens at large, Ausborn said.

“We added the home inspections, and we hand out free smoke detectors,” he said. “Structure fires have slowed down.”

He said a good thing about being a firefighter has been the three days on, four off work week, taking 24-hour shifts at the station house and having more time at home than is the case with many jobs.

His continued interest in welding provides a clue as to what he might be doing more of once retired.

Ausborn has kept up with his arc welding, doing some work for the station house along with his welding on the side.

“I still weld on my days off,” he said. “I make a lot of handrails. I can weld just about anything.”

Contact the writer at mfisher@hendersondispatch.com.