COLUMBIA — Roy Francis has an arsenal of anecdotes to share about Boone County's volunteer firefighters.
The call from a driver whose tanker fell through a bridge. The axle that gave out, stranding a fire engine near a wall of flames until Francis could get the wheels turning again. Recovering a tractor-trailer suspended from an overpass.
“The driver said he didn’t realize how high he was until he saw the geese flying under him,” Francis said with a chuckle.
He brings up each of these stories as though they are routine, not to be made much of. Each one sounds like a harrowing experience, but maybe after 42 years, Francis has just gotten used to it.
Francis was the first mechanic to work on fire trucks in central Missouri, and he has spent 42 years fixing equipment for the Boone County Fire Protection District. In January, he announced his intention to retire at the end of April.
On Monday afternoon, his colleagues threw a retirement party for him at the Holiday Inn Expo Center. Except for family, almost everyone in the crowd was from the fire district.
"There's probably no one else in the world I know that can fix things, make things happen like Roy," said Fire Chief Scott Olsen.
He received proclamations from the Missouri House of Representatives and Senate recognizing his years of service. Members of the fire board gave him a shadowbox with his signature scarlet suspenders crossed over a wrench.
And, keeping with tradition, the fire district had mounted his helmet on a plaque.
"It seems like every critical thing that happened in the fire district happened because Roy had a hand in it," Olsen said, referring to his four decades of service.
Forty years of fixing fire trucks
On a recent afternoon, Francis reminisced about those years with the fire district.
He leaned back in his chair at the fire district headquarters in an office beside the huge garage that houses glossy yellow fire trucks.
Francis started slowly, then picked up speed, squinting through his glasses as he recited the evolution of the fleet of vehicles he has maintained.
He remembers the decades in his career by the vehicles he has repaired. He knows just how many vehicles were in the fleet at any particular time. He also knows their makes and models.
The '42 Chevrolet. The '58 Chevrolet. The '54 black-and-gold vintage truck that circles the field during MU football games.
"When I started," he said, "we had about 10 vehicles."
Early days with volunteers in Harrisburg
That was 1970, the year Francis began as a volunteer. He worked in Harrisburg before there was a firehouse. The Harrisburg volunteers operated out of the local gas station, driving to calls from their own garages.
"The truck we started out with in Harrisburg was an old tire truck," Francis recalled.
The volunteers put a portable pump and a ladder on it. The tank held 300 gallons. For reference, big tanks at that time pumped about 500 gallons per minute. Big tanks today pump around 1,000 gallons per minute.
As a volunteer firefighter, Francis said he went to almost every fire in the county. He continued to go to the bigger fires until the mid-1980s.
"I put many hours in — I worked a lot of 14-, 16-hour days," he said. "I didn't see much of my wife for many years. She went along with it pretty well because I was helping the community."
Luda Francis, his wife, said that in the early days of the district, there were so few trucks that all vehicles had to be repaired immediately. It wasn't unusual to get a call in the middle of the night asking for Roy's help.
Roy and Luda Francis were married Jan. 2, 1970, just months before he began volunteering.
"I've known the fire district about my whole life," Luda said. "That's our family, I always say."
Learning the trade on the farm with dad
Essentially self-taught, Francis began helping his father when he was about 9.
"For the most part I was out there handing Dad stuff and getting in his way," Francis laughed.
He grew up on a farm north of Macon County where his parents operated one of the first licensed foster homes in Missouri.
Francis said he grew up living with more than a dozen orphaned children his parents had taken in, plus an assortment of farm equipment that would spark his interest in mechanics.
"Dad was always repairing things for everyone else," Francis said. "I just thought that was really neat."
After attending a trade school in Kansas City and serving in the Navy, Francis returned to mid-Missouri in the mid-'60s and briefly operated his own garage before working as a mechanic for Machens Ford in Columbia.
He began volunteering as a firefighter with the district in 1970, repairing trucks on the side. Four years later, the district hired him as its first mechanic.
What he can't find in the shop, he makes
His workshop and garage at the district headquarters are filled with wires and wrenches, screws and bolts. A pile of oxygen masks is strewn across his desk — Francis has been spending the morning replacing their broken seals. A mechanic, it seems, handles much more than what lies under the hood of a truck.
It has always been important for him to keep up with evolving technology. Just as he did on the farm, Francis sometimes makes parts that are too hard to find — often because they aren't made anymore.
"You have to know what you're doing," he said, laughing. "It's not necessarily that risky, but you want to test it pretty well when you do it."
When he makes gears, for example, Francis said his measurements have to be within thousandths of an inch.
Aside from making parts and fixing engines, he has also developed procedures that have been adopted nationwide.
When he first began working at the fire district, air packs were kept in box compartments. Firefighters responding to calls would take them out and put on the pack (which looks similar to a scuba diver's air tank) like a coat.
Francis mounted the packs in the compartment upside down, so firefighters could slip into the straps much faster. Fire doubles in size every 60 seconds, so time-saving strategy is important to firefighters.
"It was simpler, faster," he said, demonstrating the difference with one of the many air packs in the corner of his office. "That seemed like the best way to go at that time."
The idea spread at the state fire school, and once other departments took notice, his method was employed across the country.
"The firemen today don't think anything about that," he says, looking amused. "They don't realize it was ever any different."
During the past four years, Francis has built the fire district several "grass rigs,", which use compressed air foam to fight grass fires. There are plans to build another rig this year, and Francis still plans to help with the development.
He was also one of the first emergency medical technicians in the fire district, as the fire protection district did not respond to medical emergencies until after he joined.
Moving on, but not necessarily letting go
With his days with the district behind him, Francis plans to start his retirement refurbishing antique farm equipment.
"I'm gonna go play," he said with a big smile.
That means he's going to restore three tractors. Then he's going to make a quarter-scale baler (a machine that gathers hay into bales). Then a half-scale baler.
"And then I may build another half-scale baler," Francis said."Just for show."
Clearly, Francis is not leaving mechanics behind altogether.
"I enjoy making things," he says. "It doesn't make any difference what it is, I enjoy making things work."
He explains buckrakes and balers and hay-presses, methods of pulling in loose hay and putting it in a loft — all centering on hay-gathering technology.
"I've always been more interested in the hay aspect of it," Francis said.
"I enjoyed plowing and working fields and all that, but for some reason, the smell of the fresh-cut grass and hay just … I really enjoyed the smell of the fresh-cut hay."
The fire district has not yet hired an apprentice to replace Francis, but he is sure that any new mechanic will be well-qualified.
"I'm sure who we hire will be up to date on all the newer computerized vehicles and everything better than I am," he said with a smile. "I didn't keep up with all the computer stuff."
As of Monday, he is officially retired as the district's mechanic, but don't expect him to stay away from the station.
"I'm sure I'll come back here quite a bit. I'll be putting miles on my personal vehicle coming down here and seeing people."
Share your perspective with us
Remember the days when people stayed with a company for most, if not all, of their working days? Seems as though that's an antiquated notion. What is your perspective on job loyalty and mobility?
Supervising editor is Jeanne Abbott.