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.”

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