After 40 years of service, Woody Henderson is retiring as chief of the Fort Lewis Volunteer Fire Department.
Henderson grew up in the Glenvar area, where he has lived his entire life. He began school at Glenvar Elementary during its opening year, and was part of Glenvar High School’s first graduating class. His entire family, including his siblings, children and grandchildren, also reside in the area.
After he was encouraged by a friend, Henderson began volunteering at Fort Lewis in September 1975. He was promoted to lieutenant after his first year of service, and has been chief for the past 23 years. He has had a front row seat to the many changes over the years, and said now, safety protocol is more of a priority than it was when he first began.
“Back when I got in, it really didn’t matter. If you could walk and breathe and they liked you, you got in,” Henderson joked. “Now, we have to send everyone to an academy and they have to be certified as a firefighter and in hazardous materials and operations before we can turn them loose.”
He is no stranger to sacrifice or late nights, and has spent more time away from his family than he would like.
“It’s been a lot of fun and a lot of hard work. It’s been a lot of effort and heartache,” Henderson said. “It’s very time consuming. I work at something every day, seven days a week.”
During his time volunteering at Fort Lewis, he pulled double time, working as a part of the Salem Fire Department’s career staff for 20 years as well before retiring in 2003.
“I think it helped me a lot more than people would think,” Henderson said of his experience working professionally and as a volunteer firefighter. “When you work both sides of the fence, you have a little better understanding.”
Some of his favorite memories, along with some of his toughest, revolve around his time spent with the department. He said the holiday season can be particularly trying.
“We’ve had cases where we’ve went in on Christmas Eve and someone’s house catches on fire and they lost everything,” Henderson said. “We had one lady who had a little girl. Somehow, we called the manager of Walmart and he was gracious enough to come down that night, and we paid for everything so that little child could have Christmas.”
“That’s the kind of thing that is really heartwarming,” he added. “The other side to it is that you have people die right there in your hands.”
Still, he said the desire to serve is a part of who he is. Even now, he said it will be hard for him to let go.
“You fall in love,” Henderson said. “I had no intentions whatsoever of getting in the fire service. It’s something that grew on me. I enjoy what I do, and I still enjoy it.”
Though the job has taken a toll on him emotionally, he said the sense of community he shares with the men and women in the department have helped him tremendously through the years.
“Most of the time when you see someone on the job, you are seeing them at the worst time in their life,” Henderson said. “You have to mentally prepare yourself for the worst and prepare for the best.”
“We sit down and talk about things when we get back,” Henderson said of how they deal with tragedy. “Don’t keep it bottled up inside of you. If you do, it will eat you alive.”
He currently works at G&H Contracting, where he has been for the past five years. Between work and volunteering, he said he hasn’t had a chance to pick up a hobby. However, he is looking forward having more time to spend with his wife and family.
“We might do a little bit of travelling,” he said, smiling. “If we want to take off and go somewhere now, it doesn’t matter. We can just go.”
“I’ve always told the guys, the day that you don’t think you can do the job anymore, it’s time to think about leaving,” Henderson said. “You’ve got to practice what you preach. I don’t want to go out and have something happen to one of the guys and not be able to help them.”
Henderson’s final day at Fort Lewis will be Jan. 1, and the fire department is currently searching for his replacement.
“After 23 years of being chief, you just know it’s time,” he said.