The Huntsville Item, Huntsville, TX

Local News

July 12, 2013

20-year veteran becomes first female HFD retiree

HUNTSVILLE — Mary Bitter has more memories of working as a volunteer firefighter than one story can tell. The first female retiree from the Huntsville Fire Department, Bitter has experienced massive fires, a wide variety of training and certifications, adopted pet squirrels, hard times and true friendships.

Most importantly, her 20-year career is a testament to the idea that the brotherhood which exists among those in the department is by no means limited to the men.

“In 1993, I was working at the Phoenix Workshop before it became the Phoenix Commotion, and I was looking for something I could do that would allow me to serve the community,” she said. “I never grew up thinking I wanted to be a firefighter, but then I was reading the newspaper one day and saw an opening at the Huntsville Volunteer Fire Department.

“I sent in my application, and I’ll never forget the phone call I got on February 15, 1993 when Fire Chief Joe French said, ‘Come on in.’ I was 38 at the time, and once I started, I wondered why I waited so long in my life to do such an incredible kind of work.”

In the early 1990’s, Bitter was the only female working for the department, which at that point was primarily staffed by volunteer personnel.

“When Mary came in, we were more of a volunteer department than we were paid,” Huntsville Fire Chief Tom Grisham said. “There were no paid firefighters at time except the chief and the assistant chief, and we relied on our volunteers for quite a bit. In those days, our volunteers worked to raise money to fund the fire department and even owned some of its own equipment.

“Even today, we still depend on the Volunteer Fire Department for many of our responses – many times, they’re the ones who are driving the department as a whole.”

Coming into a field dominated by men, Bitter said she felt she would have to prove herself to those around her.

“I grew up with three brothers, so while being the only female in a men’s department didn’t bother me at all, I felt like I had to prove that I could be just as strong as they were,” she said. “They never once made me feel like that, but I remember I nearly killed myself giving 150 percent to pull my weight and show everyone that they could trust me.

“All the work paid off – I remember the first time Chief Grisham told me he would go into any fire with me, and he felt I was competent in my training. That was one of the biggest honors to know that.”

Bitter recalls several instances where she proved herself to the other line firefighters, as well.

“I remember one fire in this historic house at Avenue J and 9th Street,” she said. “Everyone was steadily fighting the fire, and all of a sudden they started yelling, ‘Go get Chris [McGinty]! We need a hole right here!’

“I took a pole I was holding, ripped out half the wall in front of us and said, ‘Is that big enough?’ They stood there for a second before yelling, ‘We don’t need McGinty anymore.’”

One of the largest fires Bitter fought covered 900 acres in the area of FM 980, when she and Firefighter Chris Mitcham were sent to try to stop the spread of the fire on one side.

“We took an engine to one side of this thing and ended up in a cemetery trying to put out some of the hot spots,” she said. “All of a sudden, one of the embers caught on a bush on fire, and that fire jumped to a dead pine tree that I was only a few feet away from.

“I turned and bolted, just knowing that fire was going to roll over on me, and I remember Mitcham was already at the truck saying, ‘Let’s go!’ I dropped my water tank and ran through the cemetery, jumping over grave markers until I got to the back of the truck. I covered my face with my coat and we were out of there.”

While there were some close calls, Bitter looks back fondly at many of her experiences while volunteering for the department, like performing rehabilitation on injured animals – some of which ended up becoming her personal pets.

“In 1994, a newborn squirrel fell into our truck bed, and I ended up naming him Popeye and taking care of him,” she said. “Well, he grew up and would never leave, so he lived with me, played with my dogs and even played tug-of-war with my dish rags.”

Throughout the years, Bitter has spent over 2,000 training as an Emergency Medical Technician, Public Safety Diver on Dive recovery team, Company 2 Rescue Company member and Safety Officer. Remarkably, she did all this while raising two daughters as a single mother.

“I always carried my girls’ picture in my helmet, so I always felt like I had them there with me,” she said. “It sounds corny, but they called me their hero – after all, I was a single mother for my entire career except for the first six months.

“We had a system, though. When I’d leave the house in the middle of the night for a fire, I had a magnet by the front door that I’d slap on there so they’d know where I was if they woke up. We always found a way to make it work.”

Looking back, the names of many members of fire department who helped Bitter along the way stick out in her mind.

“So many of the seasoned firefighters I worked with who are now retired really took me under their wing – E.J. Hinson, Louis Parker, Matt Hannas, Charles Kilgore, Danny Coker, Johnny Kibby, Chris Mitcham and many others,” she said. “Chief Grisham, [Assistant Chief] John Hobbs and EMC John Waldo especially have been incredible friends for my entire career. When people say this group is a brotherhood, it’s true – every firefighter I’ve worked with, you don’t have to ask twice – they’re always, always there, and that’s a very special feeling. I must thank all for the incredible opportunity to serve my community.”

1
Text Only
Local News
  • 4-23-Davison,-Brent.jpg Infant stable, but still critical

    A 2-month-old baby who was found unresponsive at a Huntsville residence last week is in stable but critical condition at a Houston hospital.

    April 22, 2014 1 Photo

  • Historian: Let’s talk about civil rights in Huntsville

    In 1965, the civil rights movement made its way to the city of Huntsville, beginning with a sit-in at the Cafe Raven, a popular restaurant at the time.
    To celebrate next year’s 50th anniversary of the move toward racial integration, the Sam Houston Memorial Museum will be hosting an oral history event for citizens and senior citizens to get together and share their accounts of the civil rights movement in Huntsville on Thursday night at 7.

    April 22, 2014

  • 4-23 Hair.jpg ‘Hair’ still growing on young actors, audiences more than 40 years after debut

    War, peace, racism, sexism, mistrust of the government, radical change, social and sexual revolution, freedom of expression, scandal, civil liberties, sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll, turning on, tuning in, dropping out, but never fading away.
    Is this the dawning of a new Age of Aquarius?

    April 22, 2014 1 Photo

  • 4-22-Sunshine-Boys.jpg Huntsville Community Theatre presents 'The Sunshine Boys'

    April 22, 2014 1 Photo

  • 4-21-Reunion.jpg PHOTOS: Haynes family gathers for annual Easter reunion

    April 21, 2014 2 Photos

  • 4-21 Cop Story.jpg Sheriff’s officers adopt local woman into their family

    When Walker County Sheriff’s deputies responded to a suspected burglary two years ago at the home of 83-year-old Madelene Patton, they left with much more than they expected.

    April 21, 2014 1 Photo

  • Camp-Good-News-2012-014.jpg Good News in Navasota: Free summer camp open to kids with parents in prison

    For many young children, seeing a parent behind bars can be a traumatizing experience.
    Unfortunately, the young people often become the victims in cases dealing with imprisoned parents.
    The Episcopal Diocese of Texas has worked hard to give these young folks a place where they feel accepted and can share their experiences with others who are going through the same pain.

    April 19, 2014 2 Photos

  • Camp Hope comes to Huntsville to help veterans

    “Late at night it’s drizzling rain ... I am hit and feel no pain ... jagged shrapnel on the fly ... chills my blood and makes me cry ... but in my heart I have no fear ... because my Ranger god is near ... I’ll be the best that I can be ... Airborne Ranger Infantry.”
    Rousing, impassioned, inspiring cadences are designed to birth a soldier. However, what elements are in place for the rebirth of a civilian who has had their “blood chilled,” and made to cry?

    April 19, 2014

  • 4-20-Lawsuit.jpg City wins condemnation case, owner appeals to higher court

    Randy Gardner is fighting back after losing a section of his property to the City of Huntsville in initial condemnation proceedings.
    On March 27, a set of special commissioners — three impartial citizen landowners who by law oversee these cases — awarded Gardner close to $13,500 for two sections of land. Neither Gardner or his attorney Bennie Rush attended the hearing, according to court documents.

    April 19, 2014 1 Photo

  • 4-19-Sheriff-Award.jpg Sheriff says thanks to good Samaritan

    A Good Samaritan is uncommon today. Claude Williams, however, exemplifies this rare virtue that is so often admired, yet seldom acted upon.
    On the morning of April 5, Williams, a 75-year-old retired peace officer, saw a deputy from the Walker County Sheriff’s Office struggling with a resisting suspect at the intersection of FM 2821 and FM 247 in Huntsville.
    Without hesitation, Williams sprung into action.

    April 18, 2014 1 Photo

Photos


House Ads
Twitter Updates
Follow us on twitter
Facebook
AP Video
Bon Jovi Helps Open Low-income Housing in Philly Pipeline Opponents Protest on National Mall Hagel Gets Preview of New High-tech Projects S.C. Man Apologizes for Naked Walk in Wal-Mart New Country Music Hall of Fame Inductees Named 'Piles' of Bodies in South Sudan Slaughter New Yorkers Celebrate Cherry Blossom Blooms SCOTUS Hears Tv-over-Internet Case Justice Dept. Broadening Criteria for Clemency Chief Mate: Crew Told to Escape After Passengers 'Miss Meadows' Takes Holmes Back to Her Roots Biden: Russia Must Stop Talking, Start Acting David Moyes Out As Manchester United Manager Raw: Leopard Bites Man in India Iowa College Finds Beauty in Bulldogs High Court to Hear Dispute of TV Over Internet Stowaway Teen Forces Review of Airport Security
Hyperlocal Search
Premier Guide
Find a business

Walking Fingers
Maps, Menus, Store hours, Coupons, and more...
Premier Guide