Memorial honors retired fire chief
BY JILL STALLCUP / FOR THE RECORD
Row upon row of Madison firefighters in dress blue uniforms filled the pews at Madison Church of Christ to remember and honor Charles Wallace, Madison’s first fire chief.
Firefighters, police, elected officials, sheriff deputies, HEMSI personnel and citizens from all over Madison County joined together to honor Wallace.
Wallace moved to Madison in 1964, and shortly after joined the then volunteer fire department. Five years later Wallace became the first paid fire department employee when he was hired as the fire chief.
At the time he was hired, Wallace headed up a volunteer fire department. During the next 30 years, Wallace took the department from all volunteers to a fire department with 40 full-time firefighters. He oversaw the building and staffing of a second fire station and the relocation and building of Station 1. Wallace also served as president of the Alabama Fire Chiefs Association.
After 30 years as fire chief and 35 as a firefighter in Madison, Wallace retired in 1999, but he continued to give his time to the city.
During elections he could be found working the polls. “Before and after retirement Mr. Wallace focused on contributing to his community – serving as a Poll Inspector was one of many activities,” said Frank Barger, Madison County elections coordinator. “He was a kind, gentle and hardworking man – always producing a smile, an encouraging word and firm handshake. A friend to many and to our overall community. His presence will be greatly missed.”
As people gathered at the church for Wallace’s funeral, they spoke of him and the memories they have about him.
“I was a volunteer fireman under Chief Wallace, and he was a fine chief,” said former Madison Mayor Burrwell “Sonny” Wilbanks. “It was an honor to hire him as the first employee of the fire department.”
Former state Sen. Tom Butler said if it hadn’t been for Wallace’s vision of what the Fire Department should be, Battle might not have survived the heart attack he suffered. “The fire department had gotten a new defibrillator, and the men had trained with it eight days before I had my heart attack,” said Butler. “It was because Chief Wallace recognized the need for the equipment that I’m standing here today.”
When Greg Garner stood and remembered the man under whom he had served, it was to tell of a man who was quiet and humble, who believed in respect for others. Garner said Wallace empowered the men he put in charge and trained. He said Wallace was always there to help and willing to assist, but he let people do their job because he believed in them.
Chief Wallace took his final ride on Madison’s first fire truck, with an honor guard of firefighters. Fire trucks from Toney, Moores Mill, Monrovia, Huntsville and the Huntsville Airport joined the procession. City employees and members of the public lined Hughes Road to pay their respects.
The Madison Fire Department, beginning with crossed aerial ladders with a draped flag over Mill Road, gave all honors to Wallace.
Bagpipes played as his casket was carried to the gravesite. A ceremony of the last bell symbolizing his last alarm call was conducted, and a fly over of the HEMSI rescue helicopter followed. A bugler played taps, and Wallace’s family was presented his flag. A final radio call for Wallace was made with a message of condolence to the family from the department.
Through Wallace’s dedication to Madison benefited the city through lower homeowners insurance rates as the department became better equipped. When the current Bob Jones High School was in its planning stages, Wallace pushed for the 102-foot ladder truck to better protect a building the height of the new school. This allowed other buildings in the city to be built more than two stories high.
Wallace ran the Bob Jones scoreboard at basketball games for many years, and he enjoyed playing ball with people in the community. “There were no organized leagues at the time, but we all had a good time, and Charles was always enthusiastic about the games,” Jim Sturdivant said. “He was an integral part of the community.”
“He was as good a man as you could want to the fire department and to the city of Madison,” Madison Fire Department Capt. Stacy Haraway said.
Rest well Chief Wallace. You were one of a kind.
For photos from the memorial service, visit Facebook.
Correction: Tom Butler was mistakenly referred to as Tommy Battle in the original version of this article.