In his mid-20s, Allen Shelton had just moved back to his hometown when he, out on the town with his wife and friends, was met with the sight of the Garfield school burning and Garden City’s volunteer fire department fighting the destruction.
Shelton was 6 when his father began his 17-year stint as a volunteer for the department, a job he had retired from the previous year. He had watched his dad come home covered in soot, and he was always proud of him. As Shelton watched the fire, something struck him.
Not long after, he turned in his application to join the department.
Shelton officially joined the department as a volunteer in the dying days of the summer in 1975. In the years to come, he would rise through the ranks. He would be elected as volunteer assistant chief in 1978 and appointed volunteer chief in 1982. In 1984, he became Garden City Fire Department’s first full-time, paid employee and chief, ushering in a decades-long era of growth, openness and dedication to education and training.
And this week, after 44 years, he retired. He said he’s loved every second of it.
“You know, I’ve never experienced a day that I didn’t want to come to work. I’ve always wanted to come to work,” Shelton said.
Shelton’s tenure at the department was constantly one of evolution. The Central and Labrador fire stations were built in his early years and remodeled and expanded when he was chief. He worked with former city manager Dean Wiley to move the small, tight-knit volunteer department to a combination volunteer-paid department, and now a paid department. In the interim, Shelton built the command structure of the department from the ground up, he and colleagues said.
Today, said Brad Smith, former president of the Kansas State Association of Fire Chiefs, the Garden City Fire Department, its personnel and its educational and training programs easily hold their own, if not surpass, departments of cities its size.
“He’s built a strong department that can match up with any place around,” Smith said.
Shelton’s decades at the station coincided with incidents that impacted Garden City. Large fires on Main Street and a Presbyterian church stand out. The devastating fire that burned down the Con-Agra beef packing plant left a large part of the city without jobs and cut Garden City’s population as people left to find work elsewhere, Shelton said.
On 9/11, 26 years to the day after Shelton joined the department, Shelton was looking over a new fire truck when the news of the Twin Towers broke. Soon, he and other officers were out at the Garden City Regional Airport as planes set for destinations across the country instead landed in Garden City.
And he collaborated with local law enforcement and the Kansas State Fire Marshal’s Office investigating local fires. Garden City Police Chief Michael Utz said Shelton was instrumental solving in a case of serial fires and robberies in town. Melvin Dale, who worked with Shelton for years out of the fire marshal’s office, said he had a knack for thinking ahead during investigations. Out of the 27 counties Dale covered in southwest Kansas, Shelton stood out above them all, he said.
Shelton worked with Garden City Community College staff to build a fire science program, then to build a regional training facility. The space, including two classrooms, two burn rooms and a fire tower, still allows for on-site training for local firefighters and students, as well as many regional departments. No one else in southwest Kansas has that, Seier said.
The development falls in line with one of Shelton’s key pillars: education and training.
From his early years at the department, Shelton has pushed for additional training opportunities for local firefighters, from having officers complete fire training classes at the University of Kansas to programs at GCCC.
In a changing world, the continued education is vital to fighting fire effectively, Seier said. As vehicles and buildings change, so do the methods of rescuing people from crushed cars or fighting structure fires, Seier said. To this day, officers are heavily encouraged and given avenues to pursue continuing education, whether out of town or in Garden City, he said.
Shelton himself has served the fire safety community beyond Garden City. He’s served on boards across the state and was named Fire Chief of the Year in 2018.
Shelton was a leader with an open door policy and eagerness to mentor, said Seier, who came to the department in 1995, when he was a few years younger than Shelton was in 1975. He’s served a dramatically changing department in a dramatically changing and growing city, said Garden City city manager Matt Allen. He’s a good investigator and he’s driven, said Dale. He works behind the scenes and he’s funny, said Reichmuth.
The department is what it is today largely because of him, Seier said.
“That’s one thing about Garden City that you can always say: the equipment that we have ... you can’t beat it ... As far as the station equipment we have, the trucks we have, the staff we have, the training we’re able to get, there’s nothing better anywhere around. And that’s ultimately because of Chief,” Seier said.
“The growth — some of it’s natural because obviously the town has grown and we need more manpower, but without Chief Shelton’s direction, obviously we wouldn’t be where we are today,” he said.
Forty-four years ago, Shelton was in communications when he decided it was time for him to be a firefighter, and he’s loved coming to work every day since. There’s an unpredictability to the job, he said. Everyone in the fire house is family, and everyone outside of it is the community you get to meet, know and serve. Instead of moving to a larger station, he stayed in Garden City, where he and his wife were raised and married and where his children grew up. It’s his passion, he said, and he’ll miss all of it.
“It’s like serving a church,” said Shelton, an active Catholic. “The joy that you get for serving the people in your church is the joy that you get for serving the people in the community.”
The City of Garden City is currently conducting a national search for Shelton’s replacement that will also consider local candidates, Allen said. He said he hopes to fill the position by the end of the year, with Battalion Chief Rick Collins heading the department in the interim.
But Friday, the department instead turned to Shelton. At a reception, friends and colleagues shook his hand and hugged him. The department’s battalion chiefs bestowed on him a large, polished fire ax, and the Kansas State Association of Fire Chiefs gave him a plaque.
And hours later, he boarded a fire truck as chief for the last time. The truck drove him north, and then to his house, where the streets were lined with vehicles of first responders, lights flashing, thanking him and welcoming him home.
Contact Amber Friend at email@example.com.