After 21 years of service to the City of Orange Beach, Fire Marshal Craig Stephenson received a surprise send-off that left him without words. On May 29, as he walked out of Fire Station 1 for the …
After 21 years of service to the City of Orange Beach, Fire Marshal Craig Stephenson received a surprise send-off that left him without words. On May 29, as he walked out of Fire Station 1 for the last time as Fire Marshal, Stephenson was surprised to see a parade of vehicles lined up to wish him the best.
Over 50 vehicles filled with friends, families and community members lined up for the opportunity to drive past Stephenson. Handmade signs hung from windows as everyone had a few moments to express their gratitude and wish him a happy retirement.
“I don’t know what to say. It was very humbling and it makes me feel like I have accomplished something while I was here that I have touched some hearts and done some good. That is why you get into fire service to do some good for people and that was my mission all along. Just the support from the families and the kids that means a lot," Stephenson said after the last well-wishers departed.
Fire Chief Mike Kimmerling spoke about the role Stephenson has played in the department and community.
“Craig has been the face of the Orange Beach Fire Department and we cannot thank him enough for the positive impact he has made on our community. He has always taken an active role with children at the schools and through coaching. The ability to be a positive role model for these kids is a tremendous benefit for our department and for the fire safety messages we present. He has been one of the greatest recruitment tools we have for new firefighters,” said Kimmerling.
Over the years, Stephenson has been a fixture at the schools on the island. Almost every morning for the last 11 years at 7 a.m., you can find him at Orange Beach Elementary school where he greets the students. During Fire Prevention week, he uses his background in education as he teaches the students about fire safety. Over the years he has also coached football and baseball in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach.
“I go to the ballparks when I know the kids are playing if I’m not coaching something. The little kids will say “Mr. Craig I’ve got a game tonight will you come watch me play?” I go to the Sportsplex and I make sure they see me at their game and then I make a round to every field and see if any of my kids are playing and make sure they see me. I watch them play for a few minutes and that just means the difference,” Stephenson said.
City Administrator Ken Grimes said, "I wish there were more guys like Craig. When you look at a career filled with true impact on a community and especially on the children of the town, Craig has created a lasting legacy for so many that will always remember Mr. Craig shaking their hand, driving them on that firetruck or a knuckle bump at the ballpark. We appreciate what he stands for and how he carried himself through good times and bad."
Stephenson grew up in St. Louis, Mo. and after graduating high school in 1972, he made his way to Alabama on a baseball scholarship as a catcher at Patrick Henry Junior College in Monroeville, Ala. He completed his degree in education at Auburn and Auburn – Montgomery. After a brief stint playing professional baseball in the AA League for the Montgomery Rebels, he taught school and coached until 1984.
Stephenson’s parents and brother moved to Orange Beach in the mid 70s and he enjoyed spending time here during the summers so it’s no surprise he made the area his home after he left teaching. He took a position managing a True Value hardware store in Gulf Shores and began volunteering with the Gulf Shores Volunteer Fire Department.
In 1985, he went back to school to obtain his emergency medical technician certification. After years of volunteering with the fire department, Ricky Sunday who owned MedStar at the time asked him to come to work for him on the ambulance. So, in 1995, he left his position at True Value Hardware.
“One day in 1999, I was up here at city hall with my degree in education and physical education interviewing for the parks and rec job. I left discouraged and came back here to the station. Chief Mickey Robinson looks at me and says, ‘I was just looking your name up.’ I said really. He handed me a card and said, ‘Here. Go get your physical tomorrow, tell Medstar goodbye and you start here in two weeks’ and I have been here ever since. That was January 1999.”
After years of being on a truck, Stephenson was asked to start doing inspections and he enjoyed the work. After a couple of years there were some changes in the department and Stephenson ended up being offered the job as Fire Marshal in 2008.
“At first it wasn’t by choice. The fire marshal we had, I think he kind of got fed up with things and just wanted to get back on a truck, so he went back on a truck as a lieutenant. Then the guy who was second in charge did not want the fire marshal job and he went back onto a truck as a lieutenant. And that left me. They came to me and I said I don’t know. I wanted to be able to keep coaching. I always coached at Gulf Shores Middle and High School helping with football and baseball. The mayor and all allowed me to do that in the afternoons and I took the job,” Stephenson said.
Stephenson took a moment to reflect on his one regret. “The only regret is I wish I would have done it earlier instead of waiting til I was 40 to get into it full time. It would have been a lot better at 20 going through recruit school. Would have been a lot easier. I was in better shape back then, but I made it. I wish I would have started earlier. “
Over the years, Stephenson has been a leader and organizes the annual barbecue fundraiser, the Muscular Dystrophy Association’s “Fill the Boot” campaign, takes care of the Little Bear Point Cemetery and teaches fire prevention to students and the community as a whole. He will continue with the department part-time.
Stephenson’s retirement plans are simple. He wants to spend some time relaxing in his Lay-Z-Boy, spend time with his wife Patty and playing with his four grandkids.
“When I ride into the sunset Friday evening, I’m going to take a few weeks off and then come back part time. I am going to start getting in with the school and coaching football at the new high school. I am going to see my kids come heck or high water.”