Stephen Walton officially retired in 2008 but his career kept on going. Now it’s old enough to start thinking about a retirement of its own.
The part-time assistant Charlottesville fire marshal is working on 50 years as a paid public safety employee with the city. Currently reviewing fire protection plans, he joined the city police department full time in 1972 and left five years later for a full-time job as a firefighter.
He’s actually been with the city longer than a half-century, starting out as a volunteer firefighter in 1969.
“It’s hard to believe it’s been that long,” he said recently, shaking his head. “In the mind, you still feel like you’re 35 or 40. It isn’t until you’re climbing up staircases to inspect a new building that your body reminds you how old it is and that you have to walk up a little slower.”
Walton has seen a lot. He patrolled city streets on graveyard shifts when the Downtown Mall was first being built. He investigated crime scenes as a forensic officer. He fought fires, supervised firefighting efforts as a battalion chief and investigated fires as fire marshal.
In that time, buildings grew bigger and taller. The population got larger. Women became firefighters. Firefighters became paramedics.
Walton, 73, officially retired from the department in 2008 at the age of 61. He took one day off and came back to the job.
“They have mandatory retirement at age 60 but you could get a one-year extension with approval from the city manager,” Walton recalled. “I got the one-year extension since I was doing a lot of stuff no one else in the department was doing at that time. In 2008, I retired and the chief said take a day off. Then I came back to work part-time.”
With a big building boom in the city for office space, multi-use developments and apartments, he’s busier than ever. He works with builders, developers and architects and has been involved in the CODE Building, the Apex Clean Energy mass timber building and the 3Twenty3 building, all rising near downtown.
“Most of what I do is coming in toward the end of the building project to make sure everything meets the requirements,” Walton said. “In the last few months of a project, there is always a push to get the building finished, mostly between June and July. We see that now with the buildings we have going up.”
Walton said the job is fascinating.
“I’ve been lucky because I’m in a position where I really enjoy what I’m doing. It’s interesting when you look at all the buildings, like the mass timber [Apex Plaza] building going up. You look at these webinars about how strong the timber buildings are and how high they can build them. They can build up to 18 stories right now,” he said.
“Then you meet with the engineers and the contractors and ask them questions about what you don’t know and you get an understanding of how this works and how that works,” he said. “And they rely on me to answer their questions. I enjoy it.”
Walton wasn’t always about buildings and plans. As fire marshal, he investigated fire scenes, including some that proved fatal. In 2014, he was the fire marshal in charge of piecing together how a fire was set at the scene of a double-murder of a special education teacher and her daughter.
In 2017, Gene Washington, of Charlottesville, pleaded guilty to capital murder of Robin Aldridge and second-degree murder of her daughter, Mani Aldridge.
“You know, that was tough because you had to put it together. We went in after the police had done their investigation to try and determine where and how it started, and you have to put yourself in the mindset of that process,” Walton said. “It can be difficult on you.”
The job also could be a hoot, like rolling a big fire rig down the road, horn blasting and siren blaring.
“Oh, for me, the best job was driving an apparatus. You had a lot of responsibility, but I enjoyed it,” Walton said as a big smile spread across his face. “Most of time, the officer on the other side of the cab did the horn and siren because I had to do the driving and pay attention, but it was great.”
The trucks were big and loud and not easy to drive. That made them both a challenge and fun.
“When I first went to the fire department, most of the trucks were stick shifts and we had one or two automatics. But you had to learn how to drive each of them because they were all different. If you got assigned to one of the engines with standard transmissions, you had to be careful because we had one that had almost the exact opposite of the standard shift pattern and you could almost accidentally put it in reverse.”
Then there was Old Fire Engine 6, the one with the very sticky clutch. Crews waiting for fellow firefighters to return from a call in Belmont would sit in front of the Ridge Street station to watch the truck come up Garrett Street, stop at the top of the hill at the street sign and then attempt a right turn onto Ridge Street.
“They’d watch to see if the guy popped the clutch. If he did, you’d see that front end start [bouncing] up and down because the truck was on that hill and back-end heavy,” Walton laughed. “That was a trick to get up that hill and make a right turn and then a left turn to get into the firehouse with a sticky clutch.”
He also loved driving the rear end of the old aerial ladder trucks. The long semi-tractor and trailer ladder trucks had one firefighter steering from the rear, or tiller, position, to help the long truck make short corners.
“It’s not easy at first because a left turn is a right turn when you’re steering from the rear, but it becomes intuitive after a while,” he said.
Nowadays, tiller trucks have enclosed cabins for the rear driver, but in the old days, the position was open and exposed to whatever nature threw at them.
“One time we had a house fire in Belmont and I was the captain on the aerial and driving the back end. I didn’t participate in the firefighting but you couldn’t avoid getting wet at the scene,” Walton recalled. “It was about 5 degrees out that night, very cold, and the water that coated on your turnout gear turned to ice. We finished that fire and got on the truck going to Ridge Street and got an alarm at UVa.”
The cold froze the water on Walton’s fire gear and gloves, making it almost impossible to turn the tiller’s steering wheel or grip with his ice-frozen gloves.
“I told the guys up front my gloves are frozen and my hands are cold and all I can do is hold on to the wheel, and they had to do all of the turning from up front,” he recalled. “[The driver] did all of the steering and had to make all wide turns because I couldn’t do anything. I was frozen in place and my hands were just so cold they wouldn’t work. That was one of the worst times I had on the back end.”
Those times are gone. After years in a squad car and serving as a firefighter, lieutenant, captain, battalion chief and fire marshal, Walton is enjoying his official retirement by keeping his career alive, working on plans and climbing construction sites.
“To this day, I still enjoy it. I meet a lot of people in the community, a lot of developers, a lot of construction superintendents, architects and construction engineers, and it’s nice to be part of that,” he said. “You know that what you’re doing is making the building safe. You’re making it safe for the people who are going to live or work there and you’re making it safe for the firefighters. It’s great satisfaction being a part of that and helping that building be safer. It doesn’t feel like work when you enjoy your job.”