A farewell to the chief
Almont area community mourns loss of longtime fire chief Paul Wilcox
January 14, 2009ALMONT AREA — It was almost as if you'd expect to see that trademark shock of white hair—hear that gravely voiced laugh and look up and see Paul Wilcox at Maria's Place restaurant on Monday.
While the late fire chief of 23 years wouldn't be walking through the door, his spirit was alive through those who'd gathered at the restaurant to reminisce about Paul before attending his funeral later that afternoon. Residents, fellow firefighters and municipal leaders from around the area traded memories and stories, laughter and tears in a reluctant send off of their mentor, colleague, associate, friend.
Wilcox, 66, lost his battle to cancer on Thursday, January 8. A lifelong member of the community, he'd served on the fire department for 44 years, working his way up from secretary to chief.
"He loved the fire department," says Almont Village Manager Gerry Oakes. "It was his life. He was always traveling off to somewhere in the state or the country to attend fire conventions and learn more. He loved the fire department."
Locally, firefighters knew Paul as the mentor and teacher with an edge. As a former builder, building inspector in Almont and Almont Township, and Imlay Township's current inspector, Paul knew firefighting from the inside out, says Imlay City Fire Chief Kip Reaves.
As an instructor at the county fire academy, Reaves says Paul taught his students from the ground up.
"It fit really well being a building inspector and a fire chief," Reaves says. "He'd teach building construction to firefighters. We went from two by fours to engineered rafters."
Paul's commitment to firefighting was also amazing, Reaves says.
"There aren't enough adjectives to describe Paul," Reaves says. "All I can say is he was an icon in the county, state and nationally. I learned so much from that guy. I am going to miss him terribly."
As will Dick Stine, Almont Twp. Assistant Fire Chief and longtime friend of Paul's.
"He'd do for you whatever he could whenever he could at any time," Stine says. "He was very well respected throughout the fire community and will be severely missed."
|Large procession of mourners follow fire engine bearing flag-draped casket of Paul Wilcox through downtown Almont following funeral services on Monday afternoon. photo by Randy Jorgensen.|
Stine, who joined the fire department just four years after Paul did, says his former chief was a solid leader.
"He had a good relationship with the firefighters, the respect and acknowledgement from everyone in the fire service."
Indeed, a plaque acknowledging Paul's contributions to the greater Almont community was all set to be presented to him on Monday night at the Almont Township Board meeting. Paul had announced that he'd be retiring, and township supervisor Paul Bowman says the board wanted to acknowledge all he'd done.
"The plaque is sitting in my office to give him in honor of his dedication and leadership as fire chief for the past 23 years," Bowman says. "He has done a lot for the community and the township, he had a huge dedication to this area. He's going to be missed."
A 1960 graduate of Almont High School, Paul joined the fire department in 1965. He was named chief in 1986.
He served as past chairman of the Lapeer County Fireman's Association, was a member of the Lapeer County Fire Instructor's Association, served on the 911 committee and represented Almont Township on the EMS board.
Paul was also past president and joint council representative of the Michigan State Fireman's Association, a member of the Arson Prevention Committee, Southeastern Michigan Fire Chief's Association, State of Michigan Fire Chief's Association and a member of Fire Safe Foundation.
Reaves says all of the foregoing associations and more made Paul the outstanding firefighter that he was.
"I've seen this guy in action locally, in Lansing, at the National Fire Academy in Maryland," Reaves says. "He had it all together. He really knew what he was doing. I'm going to miss him terribly."
Funeral services were held on Monday at the Almont Middle School to accommodate the large crowd. A funeral procession of family, firefighters, municipal leaders, friends and neighbors lined the streets of downtown Almont during Paul's final ride through town. For a complete obituary, see page 10-A.