Ruby Winslow retires as TKVFD fire chief

Ruby Winslow retired recently as chief of the Timber Knob Volunteer Fire Department. 


After serving as chief for nearly 25 years — since TKVFD was organized in 2000 – Ruby had retired once before, a couple of years ago, turning over the chief’s job to her daughter,  longtime TKVFD firefighter and assistant chief Nancy Winslow. But after serving as Timber Knob VFD chief for two years, Nancy and her wife, Connie Locke, moved to Texas because of Connie’s job, and Ruby reluctantly stepped back into the role as fire chief.

She and her husband, Butch, were inspired to join the Pontiac / Price Place Volunteer Fire Department in 1989 after watching their friends and neighbors respond as trained volunteers when a fire broke out at the Brock Ranch, where the Winslows were staying at the time. 

"Butch and I watched as the volunteers were coming and going, knowing what to do, and we decided to volunteer," Ruby said Friday.

They completed the basic firefighter class, which at the time was an 18-hour course. "It's over 40 hours now," Ruby said. "Back then, there wasn't much training available." For example, to qualify as a first responder, she said, "If you had a first aid course, you were in."

As they began their service with the PPPVFD, Ruby remembers one of the first fires being a store that burned at the state line. "It was just a small fire, and we put it out," she recalled. 

Like Ruby, Butch was a firefighter with the department, and he also served on the fire department’s board of directors. 


Ozark County’s first female fire chief

Ruby was soon promoted to assistant chief, serving under PPPVFD's then-chief Joe McMahon and then Ted Gutweiller. She continued in that role until the Timber Knob VFD organized later with 35 members and 12 volunteer firefighters. Of those 12, Ruby was the one with the most training and firefighting and rescue experience, which made her the logical choice for chief. She became the first female to serve as chief in any of the 14 VFDs serving Ozark County.

The little department underwent "baptism by fire" – literally. "One of the first fires we fought was an 800-acres brush fire at the old Sam Wedgeworth place," Ruby said. The fire was in the new Timber Knob VFD district, but "several other departments responded in mutual aid, and the conservation department was there with bulldozers," she said. "It took us several days to put it out."

Attitudes about firefighting were different back then, Ruby said. "At that point, a lot of the old-timers didn't want nobody to have any training. They fought against everything.”

Nevertheless, Ruby continued to seek out training classes wherever she could find them, and Butch completed many of the courses alongside her. 

"The basic firefighting class grew to 20 hours and then went all the way to a 40-hour class – which I've had, I think, three times," Ruby said, adding an off-the-cuff list of other classes she's completed, some of them multiple times: hazmat, meth labs and fires related to them, first aid and first responder courses, flue fires, vehicle fires and extrication, traffic control and others. 

"I felt like, being the first woman fire chief in Ozark County, I thought I had to be as good or better than anyone else," said Ruby, who, at 5'3" tall has always been the shortest volunteer in the department.


A most unlikely match-up

She didn't grow up wanting to be a firefighter. Born in Mercedes, Texas, along the Rio Grande, she started school in the town of Primera, and then finished high school in Fort Worth, where she and her brother and sister moved with their parents, who owned and operated convenience stores there. 

At a family gathering, she met Butch Winslow, who had just returned from serving with the Navy in Vietnam. They were married in 1971 – a most unlikely match-up, given that Ruby was born 6 miles north of the Mexican border and Butch grew up in Michigan 20 miles south of Canada. Butch is Ruby's father's sister's husband's brother. "So we had to move to Arkansas," Ruby quipped.

Actually, after their marriage, they lived in Houston, Texas, where Butch worked as a boat mechanic and Ruby went to school to become a registered veterinary technician. Meanwhile, Butch's parents had moved from Pinkney, Michigan, to the Ozarks, settling in Norwood. 

"They looked at a map of the United States, and that was one of the healthiest areas to live and raise your kids," Ruby said. 

Butch and his siblings were grown then, so his parents must have been thinking of their grandkids in deciding to move to the Ozarks. Butch and Ruby "came up here on vacation and loved it," she said. "We started looking around and decided to buy here."

They moved to Ozark County in 1977, and soon afterward, Butch opened Shiloh Marine and Evinrude dealership at Highways 5 and W, and Ruby commuted to work at a veterinary office  in Mountain Grove. Later, Butch began a 24-year job as Gainesville’s police chief, and Ruby changed jobs and went to work for Robin Deck and Bob Main at the Gainesville Veterinary Clinic.


Long-time volunteers

When they joined the Timber Knob VFD, their three children, Carrie, Anthony and Nancy,  often joined them during non-emergency work—“rolling hose and washing trucks and things like that,” Ruby said. “They were raised helping us at the fire department.”

Timber Knob VFD had only one pumper and a tanker when the department was organized, and the equipment was parked in the shop at Shiloh Marine across W Highway from the current VFD fire station, which was built in 2000. The department now has two pumpers, two brush trucks and one rescue truck.

Ruby says the best part of serving as a Timber Knob fire volunteer has been “helping people and just being there for our friends and neighbors when they need us.” One of the parts of the job that she has dreaded most has been hearing a call related to a traffic accident in the Timber Knob district. “this is a small community, so when we get a call for a vehicle crash, chances are good that we’re going to know the person in that car,” she said.

“And of course the hardest calls were when somebody died,” she said. “Those were the worst because usually one of us had to go tell the family. You’ve got to remember that we live in the communities we serve and we pretty much know everybody around us. You go to one of those bad fires, bad wrecks and somebody dies, then you have to get yourself composed enough to tell the family what happened. Even if they’re hurt bad you don’t like having to tell a family that their loved one is being Air Evaced to Springfield in critical condition. A lot of the time we would offer to drive them up there. We didn’t want them to drive like crazy themselves and get in another wreck. Usually that meant taking two vehicles— theirs, and one of ours. It’s not always easy or a good time for us to go, but when we could do that, we were glad to help our neighbors.”

Last year, when stepping back into the chief’s job was “really hard,” said Ruby, who’s now 68. “Your mind wants to do stuff but after back surgery and with my feet hurting,  I just couldn’t do it.” 

She and other fire department personnel started looking around for someone to fill the position and identified James Walley as a good candidate. He has served as a firefighter with TKVFD and also with the Lick Creek and Theodosia Area VFDs. “He talked to us about it, and I think he will be a very good chief,” Ruby said. 

“And we’ll still be around to help them learn how to run the gear and start the pumps  - things like that. I want to show them how things work so they don’t have to guess and then get  lost trying to figure it out. We still have a scanner and radio at the house, and we’ll be taking some first responder calls occasionally if needed, especially in the daytime when the department is shorthanded.”


Remembering fallen firefighters

 Besides responding to tragic accidents and fires and then assisting the victim’s families, another solemn duty has performed now several times is wearing her dress uniform to attend or participate in firefighters’ memorial services. The first was for Donald Schaper, 53, who died of a heart attack while working traffic control with TKVFD at a vehicle accident in 2011.  Ruby and her daughter, Nancy, have attended both state and national memorial ceremonies honoring fallen firefighters who had died in the line of duty. “We’ve also been called to several firefighter memorial services in the state to help with honor guard duties,” she said. 

Here in Ozark County, Ruby and Nancy performed the firefighter’s last call and bell ceremony during a 2017 memorial service for 16-year-old Savannah Leckie, a murder victim who served as a junior firefighter with Theodosia Area VFD. And in November, Ruby wore her dress uniform again to honor 9-year-old Brody Shelby, a junior firefighter with TKVFD, who died of brain cancer. Brody was the son of Bobbie Jo Shelby, James Walley’s fiancee, and Walley considered Brody his stepson. 

Ruby and Butch will be staying busy despite stepping away from their fire department duties. Ruby serves as manager of the VFW facility in Isabella, and Butch is commander of the VFW post. 

“We’ve enjoyed this work, and we were glad to help our community,” but it’s time to step back and let others carry on the work,” Ruby said.  

Ozark County Times

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