Five somber men of the Missouri Task Force stood silently on the lawn outside the Boone County Fire Protection District headquarters Friday afternoon while fire Chief Steve Paulsell spoke about Willis Smith, former president of the Fire District’s Board of Directors. It was Paulsell’s first time publicly speaking about Smith, a man some said was a father figure in Paulsell’s life, since Smith’s death.
“First, I want to say that our thoughts and prayers are with Willis’ wife, Marilyn, and his two sons, Marcus and Mike, and their entire family,” Paulsell said. “We cannot imagine the loss they are experiencing.”
Smith, who was president of the board for 21 years, was found dead outside his rural Boone County home Wednesday evening after his wife called the Fire District because Smith was missing. Initial autopsy reports show Smith’s cause of death as apparent suicide, but the official cause of death will not be reported until all lab results and toxicology reports are completed, Maj. Tom Reddin of the Boone County Sheriff’s Department said.
Paulsell was close to Smith. Their friendship began around 1973 when Smith began his service with the Fire District as a volunteer firefighter. The two men worked together at the Fire District for 27 years.
“It was under his leadership that this Fire District flourished, excelled and met every challenge,” Paulsell said. “It was under his leadership that the Boone County Fire Protection District became what it is today, and that is something of which all of us can be very proud. We will miss his leadership and friendship.”
Paulsell wouldn’t comment further on Smith’s death.
On bringing another board member to the Fire District, Paulsell said the district “will move quickly with due diligence.”
Division Chief Gale Blomenkamp said Friday that he hadn’t had any contact with the other two board members and that depending on the state statute, the board may or may not assign a replacement as early as the next board meeting, scheduled for Feb. 8.
Blomenkamp shared sentiments similar to those of Paulsell during Friday’s press conference.
“We’re sad because he’s like a family member,” he said. “I mean, it’s no different from losing a family member.”
Blomenkamp said there was no indication of a suicide note.
A public memorial for Smith will be held at 7 p.m. Monday at Olivet Christian Church, 1919 S. Oliver Road.
Paulsell said the Fire District “would continue to operate with the same effective responsiveness for which it has always been known” as they dealt with Smith’s death.
“Willis left a stable, healthy and highly functioning organization; that is his legacy,” Paulsell said. “We will take the appropriate time to remember and honor Willis. Most of all, we will carry on, for that is what Willis would want us to do.”