The first time Jacksonville Fire Chief Paul White saw a firefighter, he mistook him for a taxicab driver.
At 19 years old, White wanted to join the military and serve his country in Vietnam. He and a few friends decided to enlist under the buddy plan, but his plans were thwarted by a controversy involving overlooked and yet-to-be deployed military reservists.
Some friends of his came into town one weekend, and one of them was in a Houston Fire Department uniform.
“He talked me into applying,” White said. “I didn’t know anything about the fire department.”
White applied and got in. It was the beginning of a 21-year career with the department, where he retired as a district chief in 1988.
Saturday will mark his last day as fire chief, with a going-away party planned for today.
White did eventually serve his country in the Coast Guard as a firefighter.
White, 66, said he liked being a fireman, but the policies and procedures of the department were dangerous in 1967.
They had 15-minute air packs, but since there was only one per truck, no one used them.
“I like being a fireman, but I was afraid they were going to get me killed in Houston, so I wanted to become an officer so I wouldn’t be under someone who would get me killed,” he said.
He earned his bachelor’s in technology and a master’s in occupational education so he could teach fire sciences at a junior college as a fallback plan. He taught at San Jacinto College and Tyler Junior College.
White left Houston to serve as the fire chief in San Angelo for three years, and then a position came open in Tyler.
“That’s where I wanted to work,” White said. “I always thought Tyler would be the perfect-sized city. San Angelo was a similar-sized city, but I wanted to get back to the pine trees and forests.”
White headed Tyler for six years and then retired. He came back to the department and served another four years.
“I get bored after a period of time and was ready to do something different,” he said. “When I retired from Tyler, I didn’t think I would ever be chief again, but after a year sabbatical, I was ready to go back to work, and being fire chief sounded like fun.”
He promoted current Tyler Fire Chief Tim Johnson to captain in 1993, and Johnson continued to move up in the ranks.
Johnson said White is both a mentor and friend who is easy to get along with and work around.
After Tyler, White headed the Irving Fire Department
“I thought it might be fun to get to a big city again,” he said. “They had over 300 firemen in Irving at the time, and I thought that sounded exciting.”
After serving in the big city, White settled into a much quieter department — Jacksonville.
“We were very fortunate to have a caliber fire chief like Paul White,” Jacksonville City Manager Mo Raissi said. “His expertise really helped the fire department and the city as a whole.”
After more than 45 years in fire service and almost six as chief in Jacksonville, White said his fourth retirement is his last.
Longtime Jacksonville native Brent Smith will take over the office in June.
White admitted he was never the type to sit still. In his retirement, he plans to work a three-day week at his own restaurant — Chief’s Firehouse Barbeque.
“It’s kind of fun,” he said. “I worked at a restaurant in high school and I thought it was kind of fun. You meet a lot of people and are in business for yourself.”
Chief’s Barbeque, in downtown Edom, will open later in the summer and include smoked brisket and chicken and all the traditional sides, including coleslaw, potato salad, baked potatoes and various deserts. It will only be open on the weekends.
It is White’s second restaurant venture. He opened Maggie’s, an old-fashioned burger and shake joint in the late 1990s. He later sold the business, and the new owner ran it for a while before turning the building into his home.
Barbeque will be a much easier adventure for White. He said it’s less messy, and almost all of the cooking can be done in advance.
The building is in a log cabin, which White built by hand. The project consumed his weekends for the last three years. It is the fifth log structure he has made, including his former restaurant, Maggie’s.
“There was no rush, because I knew I wasn’t going to open until I retired,” he said. “It’s a cheap way to build, but it’s a lot of labor.”
The process involves cutting down entire trees, stripping them of limbs and bark, treating them with a bug repellent and lifting them off the ground to dry out.
Once the logs are ready, they are notched together like Lincoln Logs, White said. The layers are hammered together using rebar, and the logs are then sealed with mortar.
“It’s a cheap way to do it, and once you start building, it’s a lot of fun,” White said.
White said he’s excited to tackle a new challenge.
“You get to know everyone in the area when they come in, and after a while you know everyone’s name,” he said. “To me, that’s fun.”
The limited work hours will also allow for more vacation time.
“I have to have something to do to keep me busy,” he said. “That’s my wife’s concern, that I won’t have enough to do. If I get bored, I’ll be open more days a week.”