The man who spent 27 years protecting the city of Lawrence died Thursday.
Former Lawrence Fire Chief Jim McSwain, 65, died of natural causes at Lawrence Memorial Hospital.
Hired as the city’s fire chief in 1978 and retiring in 2005, McSwain’s legacy included merging the city’s fire department with Douglas County’s ambulance service, developing a plan to build and relocate fire stations, and instituting education programs within the department and fire safety practices within the city.
“He was really dedicated to giving the public the best fire service that he could,” former City Manager Mike Wildgen said.
In 1962, McSwain started his firefighter career in Montgomery, Ala., at a time when racial tension was high. He came to Lawrence in 1978 from Oklahoma State University, where he was a professor of fire science. In those days, it was a rare move to hire a fire chief from outside the department.
“I don’t want to say he’d seen it all, but he came pretty close to having seen it all. And actually having done it,” current Lawrence-Douglas County Fire Medical Chief Mark Bradford said.
At the top of McSwain’s mind was firefighter safety.
“His little nuance or saying at the end of all his memos or if he was going to be out of town was to be safe,” Bradford said.
Good friend and former utility director for the city Roger Coffey described McSwain as both persistent and professional. McSwain pushed to improve the city’s water supply system to help boost the city’s fire insurance rating, a goal he accomplished in 1984.
“He made quite clear to me that he planned to improve the city’s fire services and fire suppression services, and in order to do that, a well maintained and functioning water supply was needed,” Coffey said. “Everything meshed just right with us, personality and otherwise.”
During McSwain’s tenure, the fire department fought high-profile fires at the FMC plant in North Lawrence in the 1980s, Kansas University’s Hoch Auditorium in 1991 and a blaze at the Sunflower Outdoor & Bike Shop in 1997.
In a 2005 interview with the Lawrence Journal-World, McSwain said one of his biggest disappointments was the death of firefighter Mark Blair, who died in a 1986 house fire, a case of arson.
“When you become a fire chief, if you are worth your salt at all, you tell yourself that you are going to leave this position without ever losing a firefighter,” McSwain said at the time. “I wasn’t able to do that.”
Rachel Schell Prather, who was married to McSwain for 15 years, said he was a family man at heart who put his children first and the fire department second. He looked forward to big family dinners with his children and grandchildren.
“He was happiest to sit back and watch them all,” his wife said.
Along with being Lawrence’s longstanding fire chief, McSwain can be remembered as the Santa Claus who found himself in a pickle every year on top of Weaver’s department store and had to be “rescued” by firefighters.
Even without the Santa suit, Prather said he was so well known in town that sometimes it felt “like I was with a celebrity.”
After retiring, McSwain moved outside the city limits and away from the blare of fire engines.
“Every time he heard them, you could tell it really worried him,” Prather said.
He still kept in contact with his former department, visiting firefighters and reading two to three newspapers a day.
A big man with hands the size of bear paws, McSwain had a great sense of humor, Bradford said.
Recently the two traded barbs over the color of fire trucks. According to Wildgen, McSwain was the inspiration behind the city’s unusual yellow-green fire trucks, a shade he believed would be easier to spot than the red ones.
“Any chance he could, he would try to throw in something lively to keep the situation going,” Bradford said.
The current fire chief said he and McSwain were probably more different than they were similar, but that doesn’t stop him from considering his predecessor as a professional and personal mentor.
“He gave me a lot of ideas about how to manage and how to lead people. Those things I will never forget,” he said.