Remembering Chief Fields

From 1978 to 2012, Chief William (Bill) Fields, Jr. served Worthington as a firefighter, captain and battalion chief for Worthington Division of Fire and EMS. He passed away on May 3, 2024. Our June exhibit looks back on his experiences growing up in Worthington, his story of becoming a firefighter, and his lasting contributions to the community.

Born in 1951, Fields grew up at 901 Morning Street. In a November 9, 2022 interview with Worthington Historical Society Director Kate LaLonde, Fields described the incredible warmth and sense of community he had as a child with his parents, three brothers and four sisters, as well as his grandparents and great-grandparents living on the same street. "I had on both sides of me, two generations that, as a young person, I could go to every day," he said. "Both of them had great big porches. My great-grandmother had a great big screened porch that we would sit out in every morning, and just sit out and talk about what was going on up and down the street."

This sense of community extended to his experiences with church and school. Along with his family, he attended St. John A.M.E. Church, which at the time was located a few blocks from his house, at 682 Plymouth Street.

"The activities we did came from the church," he said in the interview. "We didn’t have computers. We had a baseball diamond and a big area-- Hartford field-- and that’s where we hung out. Our church was our hub. And as kids, we came together there as a group. Our Sunday school teachers took us on trips, our ministers took time out of their workdays and came out to the ballfields and worked with the kids…St. John A.M.E. Church, that's where our activities started and that went from Monday to Sunday. The church was our foundation and our hub, along with the parents of Worthington."

In addition to the church, Fields made lasting friends at school. In the interview, he explained that he attended Worthington Elementary School, which at the time was located at 50 E. Dublin-Granville Road, the site of the current Kilbourne Middle School. His sixth-grade year coincided with the opening of Wilson Hill Elementary, which he attended, and then returned to his old elementary school building, which had then become the new middle school, for grades seven and eight. He attended all four years of high school at Worthington High School (WHS), now Thomas Worthington High School.

"I was in a group of kids that, till today-- we still get together, and we talk, on Facebook, via email, but we were a very tight class…we were all very close," he said. "We did things away from school together, we did things at school together, we did everything together."

Fields was an avid football player, and in his junior year became co-captain of the WHS football team, the same year that coach Robert (Smokey) Wion was hired. "I loved him dearly," Fields said. "He was a fantastic individual for the kids, he was a fantastic individual for the community." Under Wion's coaching, Fields thrived as a player, and his senior year continued as co-captain, receiving an award of honorable mention.

Despite his many positive experiences growing up in Worthington, Fields encountered racism, primarily from the adults around him. "There were things that happened that the adults hid from us, and some of that was racism. There wasn't racism between the kids. It really came moreso from the adults. As far as the kids themselves, we all got along. It didn't matter what color you were, where you came from, where you were, we got along…We were pals, we got along.” However, he described experiences of playing at a white friend's house and being asked to leave before their father got home from work, and of not being welcome in certain neighborhoods in Worthington.

He also described being a part of the first Black Studies club in Worthington, which initially met at the St. John A.M.E. Church before becoming an official school club in 1970. "That's when we started to understand that life was a lot different than what we truly knew it to be," he said. "The parents of Worthington truly hid it from us."

After graduating from high school, Fields determinedly followed his lifelong dream of becoming a firefighter. In the 2022 interview, he described how he first became enamored by the profession:

"Every year, they would hold fire prevention week at the fire department, it was an open house. And at that time, they had volunteer firemen. So all the volunteer firemen lived around me and at that that time, they had-- behind the Savings Bank, a water tower, and they had a siren on it. So anytime there was a fire run, or an EMS run, the siren would go off, and call the volunteers, and you could hear it all over the city of Worthington, and they responded into the fire department. I had maybe four or five volunteers that lived right around Morning Street or in an area where I could see them. When I would hear the siren go off, being out in the yard I could see the firemen get in their cars, and they had the little lights on their cars. I'd get on my bike, because I only lived probably four blocks from the fire department at that time, and I would ride up and I’d stand on the other side of High Street and watch them come out and go. And I thought, oh man, that's really neat."

He put in his application to be a volunteer firefighter after graduating, and the department allowed him to join them on runs, although he was not yet a member. "I had an old, red winter jacket that I used for a firecoat," he said. "One day, the fire chief [Bud Sanford] came out with a helmet and coat and said, 'This is your fire coat, this is your fire helmet. And here are your fire boots.'" Fields was officially a volunteer firefighter.

At the time, he worked for Worthington Steel; he would spend all day with the fire department, then go to work second shift. He had been dealing with a seizure disorder since school that had held him back from being employed as a firefighter full time. However, after working with his doctors to find a medication regimen that controlled his seizures, he was cleared to take on firefighting duties.

He recalled that, in 1978, "Bud Sanford, the fire chief, asked me, 'Do you still want to get on the fire department?' I said, 'Oh yes.' He said, I'm going out of town, I'm going to give the information to the assistant chief.' Ray Wilson was a good friend of mine. I'd spent so much time up there [at the fire department], they knew what type of person I was. And he told the assistant chief, you go to the [Sharon Township] trustee meeting tonight, and you do whatever you have to do to get Bill Fields on the fire department.'"

"So at about 8 o'clock, Chief Wilson called me up and said, 'Do you still want to be on the fire department?' I said, 'Oh well certainly!' And he said, 'You're a new member of the fire department.'"

In his interview with the Sharon Township trustees, Fields said the first thing they asked him was, "Do you understand what you’re doing?" He was taking a $15,000 to $20,000 pay cut to leave Worthington Steel and become a firefighter. He told them, "Oh yeah, I understand what I'm doing. If I don't do it now, I won't be able to do it."

Fields was the first Black firefighter hired in Worthington. In his interview, the trustees asked him what he would do if responding to a fire and the family didn't want his assistance because he was Black. Fields told them that there were usually three firefighters there. "I certainly don't have an ego. If someone chooses not to have me give them first aid, there's two other people I can turn to and make sure that they do it. In my walk of life, anyone that needs help does not see color. They see help and that's all they see, so I don't think that'll be a problem."

His first day of work happened to fall during the Blizzard of ’78. He got stuck in the snow on his way to work, and firefighter Gary Wing came and helped him out of the ditch. "I followed him to work, and I never looked back."

Fields' achievements grew from there. A May 15, 1985 "Columbus Dispatch" article highlights his winning the Firefighter of the Year award from the Sharon Township Fire Department and American Legion Leasure-Blackston Post 239. The article quotes Chief Ray Wilson: "Bill is a very dedicated individual and the kind of person that you'd like to have about 20 to 30 people just like him work for you."

In 1990, he was promoted to captain, and in 2000 he became battalion chief. He served as the training officer, hazardous materials coordinator and emergency operations center coordinator for the City of Worthington. (On January 1, 1994, the Sharon Township Fire Department was acquired by the City of Worthington.) A May 7, 2024 Instagram post by the City of Worthington states, "Chief Fields was extremely passionate about hazardous materials response. He was key in the expansion of the Northwest Area Strike Team (NAS-T) from a regional fire investigation cooperative to a multi-agency hazardous materials resource."

A December 24, 2009 "ThisWeek in Worthington" article highlights how Chief Fields and three other Worthington firefighters were honored for their rescue work in the aftermath of an April 18, 2009 automobile accident, which left many victims trapped with life-threatening injuries. The Worthington firefighters received the Citizen's Distinguished Service Award from the Columbus Division of Fire for their work freeing a victim, who was flown to a local hospital and survived.

The City of Worthington asked Chief Fields about possibly becoming fire chief for the department, but he loved being battalion chief. In his interview with LaLonde, Fields said, "I was able to go out, assist my men, assist the community…I was able to go everywhere and help. I love it."

Fields retired in 2012 after 34 years of service to Worthington. The May 7 Instagram posted by the City closed with, "We are grateful for having known him and for his willingness to share his many talents as part of our fire service family."

To listen to Chief Fields' 2022 interview in its entirety, please contact the Worthington Historical Society.