The man in the picture is myÂ grandfather, Earl C. Mayers, better known to many as “Smokey”. Â To me, he was “Grandpop”. My whole life he served as “the Fire Marshal”. Â I say it like thatÂ because he carried that title inÂ several jurisdictional responsibilities, the most visibleÂ beingÂ the Chief Fire Marshal for Montgomery County, Pennsylvania until his death in 1981. At different times, he wasÂ the fire marshal for North Wales Borough, he served the Fifth District, he was theÂ federal fire marshal at Warminster Naval Air Development Center, and servedÂ as Fire Chief atÂ the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard. I may even be missing some credentials.
The point I wanted to make was that he was considered a very passionate leader and his efforts were remarkable. Â What some people don’t know is that Smokey was not a learned man in the context of formal education.Â In fact, he didn’t even have a high school diploma. What he lackedÂ inÂ letters after his name he made up for in devotion, commonÂ sense, perception, and command presence. Nobody gave Smokey a hard time except maybe Grandmom,Â but even then, she was his biggest cheerleader.
Smokey’s influence was remarkable. There are generations upon generations of fire service leaders who learnedÂ at his feet or at the feet of others who were taught by him. Â These leaders include my uncle, Pat Mayers, theÂ long time Ops Chief for VMSC of Lansdale; and my father, Chuck Mayers, who in his own rightÂ assumed the role asÂ “the Fire Marshal” for many different jurisdictions. What made Dad’s accomplishmentsÂ more special were that several of the jurisdictions were the very onesÂ Smokey had served.
The Montgomery County Fifth District, long considered a leading organization in starting the Montgomery County Fire School and many other initiatives, gives an annual fire service leadership award in Smokey’sÂ honor. When you consider all the people Grandpop’s influence reached, the impact is stunning. Â Just keeping it in the family, I think about all the people Uncle Pat and my Dad likely taught and mentored, then all the people Brian and I have done the same for, and we are likely talking thousands and thousands of people if you were to map it out. When we put it into the perspective of fatherhood, as a father, the legacy you leave isÂ the testament of your true leadership. Smokey’s legacy wasÂ not only to his children, but to many, many, many others, as he was a mentor and a shining example of achievement even faced with adversity.
But the other reason to talk about Smokey todayÂ was that in my own time in the fire service, I have seen overwhelming change, and Smokey was a change agent before anyone even considered the term to be appropriate. As old school and salty as Smokey was, he was, if nothing, a groundbreaking individual, who agitated for things like education and better fire protection, at times when in our business, those weren’t popular concepts. This might be surprising also in the context to some, having little formal education, mentoring and educating someone might prove detrimentalÂ to your own career. Smokey never paid any attention to that. I know people have told me repeatedly, what he cared about was his work. He considered his work to be life-affirming, and he didn’t dwell on his weaknesses, he focused on what he was able to do, and he took action.
I heard a firefighter say recently, when faced with taking a class, that they only had a few more years until retirement, and maybe someone who has a few more years ahead of them should take the class instead. I took the comment somewhat tongue-in-cheek, knowing the individual, and especially since they elected to take the class after all, Â but how many people do we know that to be their true rationale? That they have learned everything they already need to know, and don’t need any further education? Grandpop, or Smokey to everyone, gave me adviceÂ in the days before he passed away. We were talking about my enrolling in the very thing he and others helped form, the Montgomery County Fire School, and I was relating the hard time I was getting from some individuals in my department about signing up for so many classes in my first few years. Â He had some colorful language for them, as he always did. Â But he looked right at me and told me to ignore them; take every class I could get into, and especially if someone else was going to pay for it. Â But he was even more clear: Never pass on an opportunity to learn something.
Thirty-fiveÂ years later, I have a file drawer full of certifications. But I didn’t get those certifications in order to pad a resume. Â I soughtÂ them because each were chances to learn something from someone else. Sometimes the learning didn’t even come as a result of the course. Â Sometimes it was the networking, or other times, it opened up a different opportunity. On occasion, having that particular course paved the way toÂ a different, more lucrativeÂ role. Â For many of them, I wasn’tÂ paidÂ for the experience. In some cases, I even had to take time off, and even PAY for the experience myself. Â ButÂ every opportunity creates more opportunity.Â The exponential nature of life experience isn’t in the pieces of paper you collect, but in the purposeful moments that accumulate along the way. Â From each of those moments, we can derive meaning, and we can put that knowledge to work, or use it to consider what we shouldn’t do instead.
When I reflect on the things that I have done, I realize that I am good at what I do not because of the certificate,Â but because of what the certificate represents.Â Every interaction we have with another human being, or every interaction were have in another personal experience, these interactionsÂ add up to a wealth that you can’t put a dollar figure on. Furthermore, when we take those opportunities to share what we know and mentor others and treat others respectfully, we create value.
Someday, God willing, people will look back at the interactions they had with me and feel like I inspired them. Â It is in that where I get my reward. Â But understand, above all, theÂ impetus was created before me, by a guy who didn’t walk an aisle in cap and gown, but knew the value in that knowledge and inspired it in me.