Rutherford remembered as father of city fire dept.
By DON FLETCHER
News Staff Writer
It was more than fitting that Charlie Rutherford was laid to rest last Saturday, November 6, with full firefighter honors. It was almost mandatory that he was.
Rutherford, who passed away November 3 at age 89, is considered the father of Atmore Fire Department and is credited with making AFD one of Lower Alabama’s most respected firefighting units.
“Charlie Rutherford was instrumental in many aspects of Atmore’s history, serving 45 years as fire chief,” recalled local businessman Jerry Gehman, who was one of the city’s volunteer firefighters under Rutherford. “His accomplishments, beyond the call of duty and all that entails, was to move the fire department from volunteer to fulltime (paid professional).”
Gehman, who delivered the eulogy at his former chief’s funeral service, pointed out that Rutherford added fire engines and other fire suppression apparatus that lowered the city’s fire insurance rating from 9 to 4, cutting the insurance rate for homeowners and businesses by more than half.
The city’s second fire station (on South Pensacola Avenue, now leased to Medstar EMS) was also built during the 45 years Rutherford served as head of the local department.
But, as Gehman was quick to point out, the former fire chief was more than just a good administrator.
“He is a true hometown hero,” he said. “He created the Atmore Rescue Squad, trained many men in fire service, and he rescued numerous people from burning buildings, some of which I witnessed in person.”
Rutherford, who reportedly had only a seventh-grade education, was also handy with tools and used his knowledge of mechanics to better the department, especially in the days when most commercial buildings were still built of wood.
“He was common-sense smart,” reminisced Gehman, now a captain with Nokomis Volunteer Fire Department. “On one of our fire trucks, he built a water curtain nozzle that sits on the ground and shoots a stream of water … to deflect heat and protect other businesses. He also took an old deuce-and-a-half army truck and had a tank welded onto it, making it our first tanker.
“That was Charlie. He didn’t have much money as a department, but he made things happen.”
Glenn Carlee, who served as chief of police for 13 years and later became public safety director for the city, agreed that Rutherford was a fireman’s fireman, a man who loved what he did and the people he served.
“He was the fire chief when I started dispatching in 1974 and was there throughout my term as police chief,” Carlee remembered. “Chief Rutherford was very dedicated to his job and to the citizens of Atmore. He was always on-site, whether it was a fire scene, vehicle accident or storm damage.
“He was admired by his fellow firemen and recognized statewide for his experience and professionalism. I looked up to him when I started as a 15-year-old dispatcher, and I looked up to him as a fellow department head. His legacy will be long-lived and remembered by this community.”
The iconic fire chief’s retirement didn’t end his love for — nor his presence in — the public safety arena. After he stepped down as head of the department he literally built, he became a dispatcher for Poarch’s tribal police department.
Survivors include his wife of 41 years, Deborah Maddox Rutherford, and a daughter, Kristina Rutherford, both of Atmore. (A full obituary is included in this edition.)