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Nichols ends 40-year fire-fighting career

As a child, Russellville Fire Department’s Ray Nichols never dreamed of being a firefighter. But after he was hired on to the department in 1976, he found he never wanted to leave.

“After I got into it I realized I like this, and I wanted to keep doing it,” he said.

Even after he retired in 2002, Nichols found himself coming back as a part-timer, suiting up when fellow firefighters were on vacation or out sick. But after 40 years of active service, “I think it’s time for me to step down and let the younger guys take my place.”

Nichols’ last day with the RFD was Friday.

A Muscle Shoals-native, Nichols had gone to Hamilton Trade School with plans to be a welder. While he was job-searching, his wife found him an opportunity with the Russellville Fire Department through her connections at the Franklin County Courthouse.

Nichols, second from right, joined the RFD in the early days of its existence as a paid department.
Nichols, second from right, joined the RFD in the early days of its existence as a paid department.

By his own estimation, Nichols was scrawny compared to his fellow firefighters. “They thought they were going to work me to death and run me off,” Nichols said. “I did want to prove myself to the bigger guys, that I could do what they could do.”

He was able to stick it out and find a permanent place on the force, which at that time was in its early days of being a paid department. Nichols said the pay wasn’t good, and few firefighters stayed more than a couple of years. Those who stayed long-term had second jobs – Nichols worked for the ambulance service – and “the ones who truly stayed and didn’t leave for other jobs – it was because they loved what they were doing,” he said.

After 26 years Nichols retired, but he stayed on at Chief Joe Mansell’s request to offer part-time help. Fellow firefighters joked that Nichols still won’t be able to keep from coming back.

“I’ll miss coming down here. It’s just been fun, and I have enjoyed it,” Nichols said. “Of course you have your good days and your bad days, your fun days and your sad days, but overall it has been enjoyable.”

Through firefighting, Nichols found a sense of purpose and accomplishment. “When you’re on the nozzle, and you go in the front door, and the house is on fire – especially if you think someone is in there that you might be able to save – when you go in that front door and swirl that nozzle around and knock those flames out, it doesn’t matter if it’s a $20,000 home or a half a million-dollar home, you know you’re saving somebody’s property and something that’s dear to them,” he said.

Fire Chief Joe Mansell said Nichols has been a valuable asset to the department. “It was people like Ray Nichols … that got in there and made the department what it is today,” Mansell said.

Mansell said Nichols is “probably the most aggressive firefighter I have ever worked with.”

“He was the one we were having to drag out. He was just one of those firm believers that, ‘I can do it. I can put it out.’ Even when he was an officer, he wanted the nozzle. He was the one who was going to put it out.”

Mansell also said Ray was active in boosting department morale.

“He has a great personality. He was one of those who believed in hard work and believed if you want something, you have to work to get it,” Mansell said. “He always had you laughing.”

In his full-time retirement, Nichols plans to continue his favorite pastimes of trail riding with the Shoals ATV Club and traveling, as well as get back into working out – he once won a body-building competition.

Bu he will cherish memories with the RFD and plans to still stop by every now and again and check up on the gossip. Despite firefighting being an unlikely career, it’s one that brought him joy.

“I found a job where I could help people – not only possibly save a person’s home or their belongings – but maybe help somebody save their life.”

He is married to Kathy and has two daughters, Danielle and husband Bob Fitz and Lisa and husband Patrick Purser, two stepchildren and ten grandchildren.

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