By Marc D. Anderson
A chapter in the Orange Beach Fire Department’s history is closing as Fire Marshal Craig Stephenson retires. A beloved mentor not only at the fire station but at Orange Beach Elementary School and on the sidelines of youth football and baseball fields, Stephenson received a drive-thru parade at Fire Station No. 1 on Friday as he stepped out of the fire administration building as Fire Marshal for the last time.
Friends, firefighters, parents, children and other community members lined up in vehicles, holding signs of appreciation and congratulations, to bid Stephenson a happy retirement.
Stephenson said he was surprised and humbled by the parade as he always strived to make an impact in the community. The outpouring of appreciation on Friday validated that, he said.
Fire Chief Mike Kimmerling said Stephenson has been the face of the Orange Beach Fire Department.
“He has been actively involved in the schools and community and everyone knows him,” Chief Kimmerling said. “This has greatly aided the Fire Department's efforts in fire prevention and safety for our residents. We are grateful for the service Craig has provided to our community, our profession and all the members of the Department for the past 21 years. Thank you very much Fire Marshal for all you have done!”
Deputy Chief Jeff Smith said he has worked with Stephenson since the early 1990s, starting out at Medstar Ambulance Service.
”Craig has always been a joy to be around and has always been there for anyone needing help, Deputy Chief Smith said. “His abilities with not only the children of our community but the citizens has been an appreciated asset to our department. We will always be grateful to have Coach ‘Paw Paw' Craig a part of our organization.”
City Administrator Ken Grimes Jr. added, "I wish there were more guys like Craig! When you look at a career filled with true impact on a community, especially on the children of the town, Craig has created a lasting legacy for so many who will always remember Mr. Craig shaking their hand, driving them on that fire truck or a knuckle bump at the ballpark. We appreciate what he stands for and how he carried himself through good times and bad."
It’s been quite a ride for Stephenson, who began his fire career in mid-1980s as a volunteer in Gulf Shores after encouragement from Fire Chief Hartley Brokenshaw and the late Don Musgrove.
The road to fire service
Stephenson, a native of St. Louis, who loved playing ice hockey and baseball, found his way to Alabama by earning a baseball scholarship as a catcher to Patrick Henry Junior College in Monroeville (now Coastal Alabama Community College) after graduating high school in 1972. From there, he went on to Auburn and Auburn-Montgomery - earning a bachelor’s degree in education.
He got a shot at playing professional baseball in the Double-A league, with the old Montgomery Rebels. “But I went to their tryouts and stuff and it just wasn’t what I really wanted to do.”
“I knew coaching was right there,” Stephenson added. “I had just finished my student teaching in Montgomery and I got along with a bunch of the coaches at Lee High School up there. They had a big push that year for elementary physical education teachers. So I ended up teaching and then going to Lee every afternoon and coaching football and I helped with wrestling and then I did assist baseball as well.”
At Lee High School, Stephenson coached with Joe Whitt Sr. who went on to Auburn University to coach as an assistant in the football program for 34 years, and Spence McCracken, who would be inducted into Alabama High School Athletic Associations Hall of Fame in 2004.
“We were all there together and I learned from some of those guys,” he said. “It really made me dig my nose into it and get deeper into it to enjoy it.”
While coaching struck a chord with Stephenson, he left the teaching profession after about five years. With his parents and his brother moving to Orange Beach in the mid-70s, Stephenson found his way to the coast in the 80s, where he managed some hardware stores and was a volunteer firefighter in Gulf Shores.
With his interest peaked in life safety, he decided to go back to college to become an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT). In 1995, he went to work for Medstar.
He began his career at the Orange Beach Fire Department in January 1999, when he caught the eye of then Chief Mickey Robinson.
“Since my degree was in physical education, recreation and health and all that stuff, there was a job opening in Orange Beach for Parks and Rec director,” Stephenson said. “And I came to interview for that and then when it was over, I came back here to the fire station and Mickey Robinson was the chief and he just so happened to say, “You know, I’ve been looking for you.” And I said, “Really? What are you looking for me for?”
And he said, “Well, I was just thinking about you and I know all these guys around here know you and you know them.” So he handed me his card with my physical date on the back. He said, “Go get your physical. Go tell MedStar two weeks and you’re coming here.”
“So that was January of 99,” Stephenson said. “And I’ve been here ever since.”
Chief Robinson was driving the second vehicle in Friday’s parade, as he rolled up to Stephenson in his golf cart with a big smile.
After the procession of dozens of vehicles passed, Robinson said he liked Stephenson when he first met him.
“I knew he would be a good asset and he has been,” Chief Robinson said. “He has done a great job. When he was on the line he had done a wonderful job and then he moved into inspections. It just fit him so well that he stayed there and continued on to where he ended up as fire marshall. So he’s done a wonderful job for the city and for the department.”
Stephenson said he’s been through just about everything since 1999 - Hurricane Ivan, Hurricane Katrina, the BP oil spill, the big Gulf State Park fire and now COVID-19.
Starting as a firefighter at the age of 42, Stephenson had bosses who were much younger than he was, such as current Deputy Chief Jeff Smith and former Chief Justin Pearce, but it didn’t phase him.
“We were riding on the same truck, same shift, but it was good,” Stephenson said.
After riding trucks for a few years, Stephenson moved over to being a fire inspector, and then in late 2007 he was approached by then Chief Forney Howard to see if he would be willing to become Fire Marshal.
“Things got moved around, people got moved around, and all of sudden I was asked if I would be interested,” Stephenson said. “And the only way I was interested was if they would live up to my demands. And my demands were that I could still go to school every morning to see my kids; I could still coach in the afternoons; and remember that my family was No. 1, you know.”
Well the rest is history, as the city was willing to meet Stephenson’s needs. He stepped into the role and then some as he organizes the annual barbecue fundraiser, the Muscular Dystrophy Association’s “Fill the Boot” campaign, and teaches fire prevention to students and the community as a whole, among other programs.
Ever since he stepped into the Orange Beach Fire Rescue family, he’s dove headfirst back into coaching and helping with the kids. He had already been helping with fire prevention education since his days as a Gulf Shores volunteer.
“I’ve always had coaching on my mind,” he said. “I always coached rec league teams and I volunteered when my boys were at Gulf Shores. I volunteered and helped coach linebackers and I was always around the baseball. And then the last, well up to this past year, the last six years, I coached Gulf Shores Middle School football and the last year I was in Gulf Shores, before Orange Beach [Middle/High] School, I coached the JV baseball team.
“From what I do with the city here and the involvement I’ve had with kids my whole life, it just means more to me than almost anything there is to try to develop these kids into good kids and to keep them going on the right path and not down the wrong way. And I enjoy coaching so much that I just like to see their progress.”
He said he’ll continue to help coach at Orange Beach Middle / High School as long as he can.
His involvement with kids doesn’t end with coaching either. As he teaches fire prevention at Orange Beach Elementary School and has welcome students each morning for over 10 years. It’s a part of his life now and one that has a lot of meaning.
It was around 2008-09, when Orange Beach Elementary School Principal Steven W. Baker told Stephenson, his friend, that he had cancer.
“I taught fire prevention but when he got sick, we went to lunch one day and he told me that something was wrong and he didn’t know what but they were finding out. It was cancer, of course,” Stephenson said. “And then one day, I was teaching fire prevention and they were getting ready to start his chemo treatments and he said, ‘Hey, man. Can you do me a favor?’ I said, ‘What do you need?’
“He said, ‘You know, I’m out in front of this school every morning, saying hi to these kids. I’m not going to be able to do that because my immune system will be down. I’m going to do as much as I can but will you do it? Will you do it with me?’”
Of course, Stephenson started greeting students.
“And then you know, I guess everybody thought when he died I’d quit but I haven’t,” Stephenson said of Baker, who passed away in January 2010. “So it’s been over 10 years that I stand out there and see my kids every day. He started me doing it and it just – I don’t know - it just starts your day.
“I mean these kids, some of them cry and have bad days and I’ll pick them up. Or I’ll take them by the hand and I’ll walk them to their classroom. And some of them are just funny. You can just sit there and laugh. And some of them will just say things you’re really not ready to hear. But, you know, kids go hunting with their dads. It’s a youth hunt and I see it on Facebook where he killed a deer and he comes to school Monday and I’ll say, ‘Man, I saw that deer you killed. That’s nice.’ And he goes, ‘Well, my daddy shot it but then I shot it with a bb gun.’”
He said greeting the students makes his day and wouldn’t want to start it any other way.
“The teachers have been great,” he said. “I love it over there. I love these kids. The parents have been fantastic to me all these years. I mean I love them to death. And, I don’t know, that’s why I guess when this is over I’m going to keep doing it.”
Stephenson said he will continue to work part-time for the Fire Department, where he can continue teaching fire prevention to the students and manage programs such as the “File of Life” program for the at-risk community and smoke alarm education in neighborhoods.
He said he’s leaving the Orange Beach Fire Marshal’s Office in good hands with Deputy Fire Marshal Nelson Bauer.
“It’s been a ride and it’s been fun,” Stephenson said. “Sometimes, I think I’ve stayed past my time in the Fire Marshal’s Office but I shouldn’t say that. You know, Nelson, he’s so smart. I have to look it up in a book. I just can’t spew it out like he does. He studied his whole life to do this.”
Bauer and his wife Abby planned Friday’s surprise drive-thru parade for Stephenson.
As for his extra time in retirement, Stephenson said he will enjoy spending time with his wife, Patty, who he married last August after dating for 11 years, and his two sons and four grandchildren, ages 10, 3, 2 ½ and 14 months.
“My sons are down here, my grandkids are down here. I’m not going anywhere,” he said.
And with his impact to the community, he’s certainly following similar footsteps. A plaque at the Orange Beach Sportsplex honors his father Bill Stephenson and a ballfield next to the Bodenhamer Center in Gulf Shores is named after his dad.
“My dad didn’t work for the city but he was here for the kids all the time,” Stephenson said of his father who passed away in 2002. “He was always involved with the sports, announcing the games and doing the scoreboards and working the concession stands and anything to be at the fields. So yeah, I guess I’m carrying on a little bit of his kind of stuff.”
Carry on, Mr. Craig. Happy retirement...