Willis Smith, the president of the Boone County Fire Protection District’s Board of Directors, was found dead outside his rural Boone County home Wednesday evening. The Boone County Sheriff’s office and the medical examiner’s office were investigating Smith’s death as a possible suicide.
Around 8 p.m. Wednesday, Smith’s wife, Marilyn, contacted the fire protection district, saying that her husband was missing and asking for help finding him, said district spokesman Capt. Gale Blomenkamp. The district dispatched a team of 12 to 14 searchers.
Shortly after 10 p.m., the district contacted the Boone County sheriff’s department for assistance in the search. Shortly after the officers arrived on the scene, two firefighters found Smith in a creek bed a few hundred yards from his house, Blomenkamp said.
“The information and evidence thus far indicates a self-inflicted gunshot wound,” said Maj. Tom Reddin of the sherrif’s department. He described the gun as a small-caliber weapon, but he said he could not release more specific information.
Preliminary results of an autopsy point toward suicide, but an official cause of death will not be reported until all the lab results and toxicology reports are completed, Reddin said.
Smith, 77, had been a fixture in the Fire District since joining the department as a volunteer firefighter in 1973. Five years later, he was elected to the fire board. In 1985, he was elected president of the board, a position he kept until his death.
The 27 years Smith served on the board saw the Fire District evolve from a rural department to one of the largest volunteer fire districts in the country. During Smith’s tenure, the Fire District grew to include several specialized units including a Wildland Fire Team, a bomb squad, a dive squad and Missouri Task Force I, one of FEMA’s 28 urban search and rescue teams. Fellow board member Myrtle Rapp said that Smith was very proud of the Fire District’s growth.
“He was just so good for the community,” Rapp said. “He gave so much, and he was so proud of the Fire District.”
In recent months, Smith had been the object of some of the criticism of the Fire District and the board. Beginning at the board’s July meeting last summer, citizens — some who once worked for the district — began to voice criticism publicly of Chief Steve Paulsell and Assistant Chief Sharon Curry. Eventually, the board itself came under fire, especially Smith’s close relationship with the chief. A petition has been circulating to recall Smith but had not gathered near the number of signatures required to put the measure on the ballot.
Paulsell did not return calls Thursday.
When the board last met on Jan. 11, Rapp did not notice anything different about Smith, she said.
“He seemed just like friendly, serious Willis,” said Rapp, a fellow board member. “We will miss him dearly.”
William F. Berry, Smith’s close friend and president of the Boone County Historical Society, had a conversation with Smith Wednesday while Smith, the head of the society’s maintenance committee, painted the building’s interior. Like Rapp, Berry said there was no indication that anything was wrong.
“There was some light joking,” Berry said. “I never saw Willis except when he was in good humor.”
The news of Smith’s death hit the fire district hard. Blomenkamp described the mood at district headquarters as “somber.”
“People here felt like they’d lost a family member,” Blomenkamp said. “He was a true public servant; you’d be hard pressed to find someone more dedicated than he was.”
Smith’s death means more change for the fire board. According to Missouri state statutes, the board’s remaining members, John Gordon and Rapp, will appoint a replacement for Smith. The two will also have to name a new board president.
Rapp has said that she will not be running for re-election in April. Two candidates, Shelly Dometrorch and Don Farris, are campaigning for her seat.