Fire Chief Ronnie Atkinson prized service and safety

CorrespondentJanuary 12, 2014 

  • Ronnie Clifton Atkinson

    Born: Oct. 29, 1933, in Wilson County

    Family: Marries Patricia Ellis Atkinson in 1957, and they have three children, son James Atkinson of Raleigh and daughters Teresa Bell of Fairfax, Va., and Carol Trogden of Raleigh.

    Education: Graduates from Rock Ridge High School in Wilson County in 1953.

    Military: Drafted by the U.S. Army in 1954, serves for two years.

    Career: Serves the Raleigh Fire Department from 1956 until his retirement in 1997, working many years as a district chief.

    Dies: Dec. 26, 2013

— Ronnie Atkinson’s 41-year career with the Raleigh Fire Department began after his two years of military service, when he overheard a neighbor mention an upcoming firefighters’ exam. The work sounded a lot better than settling on his family’s farm in Wilson County.

The job proved the ideal fit, and Atkinson went on to rise to district chief, championing new safety measures and advocating for his men all the way, friends and family say.

Atkinson died last month at 80 after a yearlong battle with cancer. His only son was already a year into his own struggle with cancer at the time of his diagnosis. They often scheduled their chemotherapy together and both had hospice care, brought in by Patricia Atkinson, first for her husband, then for her son.

Working as a firefighter was a far better fit for Ronnie Atkinson than his family farm would have been.

“This was really his life,” Patricia Atkinson said.

The early career of a firefighter is not a profitable one, and Atkinson drove tractor-trailers and dump trucks to supplement his young family’s income.

“He always worked a second job or a third job if necessary to help us survive during those early years,” his widow said.

He achieved his goal of helping put his children through college.

Early in his career he also dealt with a lack of standardized safety equipment. Eventually, self-contained breathing apparatuses, SCBAs, were introduced and made mandatory. Atkinson was a strong supporter of anything that made things safer for his men.

But change is sometimes hard for folks, no matter how sensible it might be.

“Some of them thought you were a pansy if you had to wear a breathing apparatus,” said Johnny Sandy, who retired as chief of the Raleigh Fire Department in 1999. Their careers overlapped by more than 30 years.

“There was no challenge that he couldn’t conquer. He was one hell of a firefighter.”

Atkinson also advocated for better compensation at every opportunity.

“He knew what things to suggest that we needed, and that way the fire chief could fit it in the budget,” Sandy said.

“Ronnie was kind of reserved, but he could be outspoken when needed. In other words, he stood up for his personnel.”

As a district chief, at times half the city of Raleigh fell under Atkinson’s purview. But at the end of the day, his relationships meant the most to him.

“He was a real family man. He cared about his family, he cared about his grandchildren,” said longtime friend and fellow retired firefighter Norman Walker.

His five grandchildren and one great-grandchild were the joys of his life, his wife said.

He retired in 1997 because his vision was failing; driving at night was becoming an issue.

“He’d still be there today if physically able,” Patricia Atkinson said.

Ronnie Atkinson stayed active in the department by attending many reunions.

Atkinson was diagnosed with COPD, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, years ago.

“He was a heavy smoker, and he knew there was that possibility, and I don’t think he blamed anyone or anything. He just accepted this as life,” his wife said.

His cancer was in the epiglottis.

During his last few months, the family often called emergency services to their home. Often, the Fire Department was the first to arrive. Patricia Atkinson said he was always proud of the way they took care of him.

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