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Mike Winter

New Conway fire chief follows in father’s footsteps

By Tammy Keith

This article was published February 23, 2014 at 12:00 a.m.

Mike Winter was hired this month as the new Conway fire chief, although his shirt still says “assistant chief.” Winter, who has been with the Conway Fire Department since 1995, was chosen for the job by Mayor Tab Townsell, who said Winter “has the detailed understanding and global perspective to make Conway a great chief for many years to come.” Winter’s father, Lewis, 86, was first assistant chief for the Conway Fire Department.

Mike Winter tried to deny his desire to be a firefighter by focusing on his love of coaching, but it didn’t work.

Now, he’s the Conway fire chief.

Winter, 43, was hired Feb. 11 to replace longtime fire chief Bart Castleberry, who retired in July.

When Winter interviewed to be hired as a firefighter in 1995, he said Castleberry asked him, “‘Where do you see yourself in 20 years?’ I looked at him and said, ‘In that chair,’” Winter said, pointing. “I got there a year early, I guess.”

It’s a good birthday present — Winter will turn 44 on Friday.

His father, Lewis Winter, was the assistant fire chief for years.

“Growing up, I remember my mom dropping me off at the station and going to buy groceries or whatever, and me crawling up on the firetruck and running around the station and the bell going off and Lewis throwing me in the van, and off we’d go. You can’t do that anymore,” Mike Winter said.

Winter, a late-in-life baby for Lewis and Freedia Winter, calls his father by his first name.

Lewis was first assistant chief, a position now called battalion chief, and the assistant chiefs drove vans, Mike Winter said.

He recalled another time when his father “threw me in the van with him, and it was a house fire. He told me, ‘You go sit up on that hill, and you don’t come back until I come get you.’ Chief (Wilson) Drews came and plopped down beside me. I don’t remember what he said, but I remember him sitting there.”

Lewis, 86, said one of his favorite memories of his son is when Mike was about 4.

The Conway Fire Department had just gotten its first ladder truck, Lewis said.

“I had them take the truck to the courthouse and raise the ladder and start working with that and putting it up and down — just practicing. Freedia would always bring me supper down there at night, and Mike, he’d come with her. Freedia and I were sitting there, and I was watching the boys at the courthouse from the fire station — I had to stay there to answer the phone,” Lewis said. “They had that ladder raised up above that courthouse, and I looked, and Mike was climbing that ladder, that little sucker.”

Lewis laughed at the memory.

He said he told his wife to look at their son, “and she liked to have had a fit,” Lewis said.

“Of course, the boys were watching him,” Lewis said, referring to the firefighters. “They put him back in that bucket and brought him down.”

Despite growing up around the fire station, “I didn’t want to be a fireman,” Mike Winter said. “I wanted to make more money.”

Winter also loved baseball and played for three years at Conway High School. He decided to become a coach.

His mother was a secretary for years at Hendrix College in Conway, which is where Winter got his undergraduate degree in education, planning to teach and coach.

While he was working on his master’s degree in kinesiology at the University of Central Arkansas, he got a job coaching baseball at Hendrix.

“I would stand out there on that baseball field, and I’d watch those engines going up and down Harkrider, and I thought, ‘I’ve just got to try.’ I’ve got something to fall back on. I tested, got offered a position and never looked back,” he said. “I was just very lucky.”

The department was growing, but Winter was one of only 35 firefighters. Today, her oversees 107 full-time firefighters.

Castleberry said Winter advanced through the ranks faster than any other firefighter.

Winter was in the training division for three years and was promoted to battalion chief after 12 years in the department.

“If you don’t have goals or aspirations, you’re just stirring up the dust where you’re sitting,” Winter said. “You always have to have dreams and hopes and desires and continue to better yourself.”

He was assistant chief for six years before being named chief.

Lewis, who retired when his son was about 12, said he remembers Castleberry talking to him about how smart Winter was.

“He said, ‘Where did Mike get all that smartness?’ I said, ‘Wasn’t me; must be his mother,’ and he said, ‘Well, he’s smart. He’ll be chief one of these days,’ just kidding, you know,” Lewis said.

Winter said he didn’t know, until being named chief this month, that his father had served as interim fire chief when Drews had an injury.

Every firefighter has a mental list of the big fires he’s seen, although Winter’s first reaction is to grimace and talk about the ones he missed.

The first major downtown Conway fire in 2002 happened when he was on vacation.

“I got a phone call, ran down to the station and got my gear, but it was pretty much over with,” he said.

During the second downtown Conway fire, in 2003, Winter was on duty at another station in the city, but those firefighters were relocated to the Central Station downtown.

“We sat in the living room and watched out the window,” he said.

Winter was in the training division in 2004 when a fire destroyed East Oakwood Place, a Conway Housing Authority complex for senior citizens.

He helped take care of the senior citizens who were removed before the building collapsed.

“The salvage operation afterward, wow, what an amazing feat that was,” he said. “We would go to the occupant and they would tell us, ‘In my freezer, in my apartment, I had valuables,’” he said. “We’d dig and dig and dig. We found so much of their valuables, just things they hold dear. You think everything’s gone, but so much, we were able to recover. It was utterly amazing.”

Winter said he hasn’t personally pulled anyone out of a fire in his 19 years as a firefighter, but he is an intermediate emergency medical technician and has responded to emergencies.

He said the Conway Fire Department was the first in Arkansas to have defibrillators on the trucks, “and it made a big difference.”

Winter said most people don’t realize that today, firefighters rarely fight fires — the majority of runs are medical.

The department also has several specialty teams, including a bomb squad and a swift-water-rescue team. Winter was part of the inception of the bomb squad and has been its administrator for the past six years. Although he has a commander “so he can directly deal with things, I still respond,” he said.

“I’ve said it numerous times. If you call 911, if it’s not criminal in nature, you’re going to get the Fire Department,” he said.

“The small things that mean so much, at 2 o’clock in the morning — these guys will go and put somebody in bed, to putting their lives on the line” during fires and other situations, he said. “There’s so much we offer the citizens. When we hit those lights and sirens, somebody’s having a bad day, and it’s our job to make it better.

“I would put this department up not only against any other fire department in the state, but against any other fire department in the nation.

“It’s not about me — it’s about the men and women who make up this department and make it what it is.”

Winter has continued to further his education and is in his third year of working toward his executive fire officer certification, which takes him to Maryland each year. In 2015, he will apply those hours toward a master’s degree in fire administration.

Being a good fire chief is a balance, he said, of politics and the department.

“In the middle is really what we’re here for and to keep those scales balanced,” he said.

“I believe the chief has to support the firefighters with what they need, be it equipment, getting them training and education, or an ear to listen to them,” he said.

One of his goals is for the department to become accredited, and that will take a financial commitment from the city, he said.

Winter, who speaks slowly, calmly and describes himself as analytical, said, “I try not to make rash decisions.”

Before he makes a decision, Winter said, he thinks, “’What’s it going to do to Conway?’ I try to break everything down and come up with the best solution. You have to listen to the firefighters; you have to listen to the people. You have a boss, and he’s the mayor,” Winter said.

Although an advisory committee went through applications for fire chief, the decision was Mayor Tab Townsell’s.

When Townsell announced at a Conway City Council meeting that he had chosen Winter, the mayor said it was “a job this young man almost has been raised for, almost since he was born.”

Winter said his father never interfered with his decision.

“He’s always been supportive of whatever. It’s just like me and my kids — I just want them to be happy.”

Lewis said when his son told him he wanted to be a firefighter, “I said, ‘What in the world are you going to do that for, with a college education? Find you a job out here as a school teacher and make you more money.’ The fire department didn’t pay nothing then,” Lewis said.

“He said, ‘This is what I want to do.’ I said, ‘Go for it,’” Lewis said. “I told him to take advantage of everything they have to offer as far as schooling. He took advantage of everything he could do. He knows what he’s doing there.

“I’m proud of him; I really am. I was proudest of him when he graduated from Hendrix College. Anybody who can go up there is pretty smart. Then, when he was named the chief the other night, … that put the icing on the cake.”

All Winter lacks for his master’s degree in kinesiology is to finish his thesis, but he said it doesn’t matter to him now.

He’s got the chair he wants.

Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

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