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City Councilman Gary Hammon, Decatur Assistant Fire Chief Wendell Nicholson, Decatur police Deputy Chief Kenneth Collier and Lt. Dwight Hale at Nicholson's retirement reception held Dec. 22 at City Hall.
Daily photo by Emily Saunders
City Councilman Gary Hammon, Decatur Assistant Fire Chief Wendell Nicholson, Decatur police Deputy Chief Kenneth Collier and Lt. Dwight Hale at Nicholson's retirement reception held Dec. 22 at City Hall.

Decatur firefighter retires after 45 years

By Seth Burkett 340-2355

After more than 45 years of service for Decatur Fire and Rescue, Wendell Nicholson said he's ready to hang up his fireman's hat.

The 66-year-old assistant chief's last day of work was Friday. His career is said to be the second longest in the department's history.

"That's a long career. He's been blessed with health enough to stay with the department and do the job, and he's been a help to the department all along the way," said Lt. Billy Smith, 61, who has been with Decatur fire for 33 years.

Nicholson said he doesn't have any solid plans for how to spend his retirement, but that he's looking forward to putting in some family time. He and his wife, Virginia, have three children and four grandchildren.

"And I'll probably take back up hunting and fishing, which I quit doing several years ago. I just got to where I didn't really have time to do them like I used to," he said.

A Decatur native and Hartselle resident, Nicholson started with Decatur fire on May 1, 1961.

"I just thought it was what I wanted to do, so that's what I did," he said.

He served under five fire chiefs and battled some of Decatur's most destructive blazes, including the fire in subzero weather at Mitchell Hatchery and Feed at 24 Church St. N.W. in 1962, the gas explosion at Welding Supply Co. on Fourth Avenue Southwest in 1970 and two fires, each damaging five stores, on East Moulton Street in 1973.

"He's talked about the Mitchell Hatchery fire I don't know how many times, and how they got out just before the building fell in, and how they had to take and axe to cut the hose off the street," said Battalion Chief Kenneth Johnston, who came up in the department under Nicholson's wing.

"He really understands how to fight fire, and knows how to fight a large fire especially. And that's something you get a gut feeling for more than you can learn," Johnston said.

Now 53, Johnston joined Decatur fire in August 1977 and worked at Station 1, where Nicholson was a lieutenant. At that point, Nicholson had already developed a reputation for being a character, Johnston said.

"He'd pull a joke on you in a heartbeat. I had to make quite a few trips to the truck looking for something that didn't exist. He always got a kick out of that. He always had a joke or some story to tell. When you're young and dumb, more often than not, you're the punch line," Johnston said.

"He's a little short, thin fellow, but when he walked into a room, he filled it up. Everybody would look and see what Wendell was going to say or do next. ... He's never been one to go on his rank, either. He just goes by Wendell. He doesn't need a white shirt and a badge to let you know he's in charge. Just ask anyone who's crossed him," Johnston said.

"He's a great guy. We're going to miss him. I wish he'd stay right now. I tried to talk him out of it all year. But he's decided it's time, and I understand that. I even tried to talk him out of it last week," Johnston said.

Nicholson laughed off Johnston's pleas.

"You can't pay him any attention. He'll try to talk you into anything," he said.

Nicholson said he will miss his co-workers, if not the work, and he plans to get together with his fellow firefighters for the occasional lunch.

"If they need any help or anything, I'll be glad to do it," he said.

Nicholson served in various roles over the years, including fire inspector and battalion chief. His final job placed him in charge of station and equipment maintenance.

Johnston said it was a fitting role for Nicholson, who spent a great deal of his spare time picking through scrap in search of something useful.

"He's a scrounger. He can scrounge you up anything you need. If he doesn't know where to get it, give him a day or two and he'll find it," Johnston said. "He'll chew you out when you ask for something, but he's getting it the whole time. He's got a heart of gold."

Nicholson was instrumental in courting donations for the department, such as Nucor Steel's recent donation of $40,000 in rescue equipment and 200 smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, valued at about $40 each, for underprivileged homes.

His job also included the responsibility of running the department in the chief's absence, said Chief Charlie Johnson.

"Since I came to work here, Wendell's been a tremendous asset on our team, and he will be missed. With what he brought to the table, it'll be hard to fill his shoes," Johnson said.

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