After heading Fawn fire company since 1971, 'old-school' chief steps down
Unique. Dedicated. Old-school.
A straight-shooter. Quite a character.
Those are just some of the ways people describe Al Ewing Sr. Ewing joined the Fawn No. 2 volunteer fire company when he moved to the township from Arnold in 1966, and had been its chief since 1971.
At the end of 2017, Ewing stepped down and let a younger generation take over.
But even at 80, almost 81, he's not done. He remains on board as an active firefighter.
“I'll let somebody else be the boss, and I'll be the follower,” he said Tuesday. “I don't give orders now. I take them.”
Ewing and his wife of 57 years, Lois, have together been the core of Fawn No. 2 for decades. She had long-served as the company's financial secretary, and resigned at the end of the year.
“When your husband is involved — if you can't beat them, you join them,” she said.
Being a firefighter's wife hasn't been easy.
“I have a whole head of gray hairs,” Lois Ewing said. “It's a very demanding position to be fire chief. You have to support him. You have to be supportive.”
Succeeding Al Ewing as chief is Chase Slepak, 27, who started at the company as a junior firefighter when he was 14. He was elected to the one-year position as chief in December, and leads about 20 active firefighters.
Slepak was Al Ewing's assistant in 2017.
“It's been a privilege to work with him. I've learned a lot from him over the last 14 years,” Slepak said. “I grew up in that fire department. We spent a lot of time together. I learned a lot.
“I honor and respect his commitment to the township,” he said. “The guy spent his entire life and devoted it to the township and the A-K Valley as a whole.”
David Montanari, chairman of the Fawn supervisors, said the Ewings made personal commitments to the township “beyond what people understand.”
“You just don't find that kind of volunteer spirit anymore,” he said.
A supervisor for 24 years, Montanari said he's known Ewing at least that long.
“They were active in the entire process for everything and anything that happened in Fawn No. 2,” he said. “It was driven by Al and Lois. They were the core of that fire department.”
New Kensington assistant fire Chief Ed Saliba Jr. said Al Ewing built a reputation on being honest, shooting from the hip, telling it the way it is and giving back to his community.
“What you see is what you get,” Saliba said. “He's a tell-it-the-way-it-is fella. He doesn't pull any punches. He gives it to you straight, and he's a very honest person, and dedicated.”
Al Ewing is part of a dying breed, said Eureka fire Chief Rich Heuser, who said he's known him for probably 45 years.
“Anybody that puts that much time and dedication into something, to be a volunteer, is OK in my book,” he said. “Whether I agree with him, disagree with him, whatever. That's tremendous. You might as well say he dedicated his life to it.”
Heuser said Al Ewing is the kind of guy who'd give the shirt from his back.
“Al is a very unique person. Al is very dedicated to what he believes in. He's a fighter,” he said. “When it came to firefighting, business was business. He had his ways. He held true to his beliefs. He was old school, definitely old school. That's not a bad thing. I don't know how to describe it. He was steeped in tradition.”
A retired railroad worker, Al Ewing said firefighting ran in his family, and continues to. His father, uncles and brothers were firefighters; his son, Al Ewing Jr., and grandson, Al Ewing III, are now, and Ewing III now is assistant chief under Slepak.
“It runs in the blood, I guess,” the eldest Ewing said.
When he first assumed leadership, Al Ewing said the department had hand-me-down equipment. The department is now up-to-date, with four trucks, modern gear to stand with the best of them, and no debt.
“I feel like we went from nothing to something,” he said.
Over the years, he's butted heads, on occasions.
“I prefer to do it my way. I feel it's the right way,” he said. “I'm not doing anything to try to impress somebody.”
Lois Ewing said “love” was what kept her husband active in the fire department for so long. He didn't want to step down as chief, but because of health issues, he decided it would be best.
“I'm in a position now that I feel I could easily make a mistake, and it would cost somebody something,” he said.
He is not without regrets.
“I would've probably changed some things I said to people, out of anger,” he said.
Al Ewing said he'll miss the challenge.
“I did the best I could,” he said.