By Katie Bohannon, News Editor
Rainbow City Fire and Rescue Chief Melvin Potter is writing a new chapter in a novel enriched with service. After 42 distinguished years of leadership in professional fire and emergency medical services, Potter steps into retirement in 2021.
Born in Michigan and raised on his grandfather’s dairy farm, Potter grew up on the Cumberland Plateau in Middle Tennessee before becoming the first person in his family to graduate from college. He earned a Bachelor of Science with a major in psychology and a minor in business administration from the University of Tennessee prior to the moment that would alter his career path – when he entered the fire service in 1979.
Potter served as an EMT, firefighter, driver and captain in Rainsville before working with the Gadsden Fire Department in 1981 and attending Alabama Fire College in Tuscaloosa, then later the National Fire Academy in Emmitsburg, Maryland. Potter was hired as the fire marshal for Rainbow City Fire and Rescue in 2001, serving as interim chief in 2004 before his promotion to chief in 2005.
While Potter (pictured above) noted that his career sprouted initially as a simple job, the community service he so enjoyed inspired him to convert fire and rescue into a lifelong profession. Throughout his decades of dedication, Potter witnessed the transformation of fire and rescue, from the modernization of practices to the implementation of new and innovative technology.
“Being able to help people – that’s the standard in all of this,” said Potter. “Being able to contribute back to the community [is what I enjoy the most]. It’s mostly about the people. The people I’ve met, the people I’ve worked with over the years. They’re my favorite.”
A quiet and considerate person, Potter rarely speaks unless he has something to say. His wife of 43 years, Elizabeth, describes him as a man of many talents, with his hardworking nature spanning from his hands to his quick-witted mind that he sharpens through daily puzzles and thought. Although he has never had any formal training, Potter possess several impressive skills – from plumbing to electrical and auto mechanic work. Inspired by his ever-present love of learning, Potter attends one to two classes at Gadsden State each semester, continuously moving forward and never remaining stagnant.
“I think he deserves a lot of credit that he doesn’t get, because he is very quiet and introverted,” said Elizabeth. “He doesn’t get a lot of show, and he doesn’t brag a lot. I wanted the community to know that the quiet, gentle giant has done so much.”
A loving husband, father and grandfather, Potter and Elizabeth have three children: Eva Francis, Thomas and Sam and five grandchildren. While Elizabeth does not consider her husband a social butterfly, she recognizes his profound compassion for people and his deep friendships with others. A devoted Christian, Potter’s service correlates directly with his faith. He commits his efforts to living a righteous life through his unwavering belief that a person is not on earth to serve himself, but God and others. He gives back to the church and community, acting as a deacon at Rainbow Presbyterian Church, supporting missions and studying at Birmingham Theological Seminary for Christian counseling.
“Our entire family looks up to him,” said Elizabeth. “He’s very big on community service and believes that giving back is an important trait. He believes in service and that you’re not just put here on this earth to serve yourself, but you’re here to serve others.”
Potter considers a successful fire chief as an extension of his team, a person who listens to those under him with sincerity, taking advice given and weighing that insight into decision making. While he confessed there are countless memories and experiences that he will carry with him from his years of service, he shared that he learned there is some inherent good in most people, and he can always learn something from every person.
“He looks for grants and money and resources that can provide things for his department,” said Elizabeth. “If it’s something his department needs and something that his guys need to do the job, he just goes and gets it, because he wants to make sure they’re the best equipped and they have everything they need. He’s not a micromanager.
“He believes if he’s got people working for him and he gives them something to do, have enough respect for the individual to let them to do their job. It he didn’t trust you with it and if he didn’t think you could do it, he wouldn’t give it to you to do. He’s always respected people that way. He lets them get their job done.”
Rainbow City Fire Department Captain and Fire Prevention Officer Larry Murray echoed Elizabeth’s perception of Potter, noting that Potter ensured he remained well-equipped with fire prevention supplies at all times.
“If we needed something, he got it,” said Murray. “That’s the way it was the whole time he was chief.”
Murray and Potter were coworkers while Potter served at the Gadsden department, collaborating on fire prevention and educational events at schools. He recalled borrowing a smokehouse trailer that departments used to demonstrate fire safety to students, and their working relationship grew throughout the years.
“We had a really good working relationship in those days and it just carried over,” said Murray. “I just wish him a lot of luck in his retirement years. He worked a long time in the fire service and he’s earned a break. I wish him well – he and his family.”
Potter’s retirement represents a new chapter in a life devoted to service, written by a man whose commitment to the betterment of others far surpasses his desire for recognition. For almost 50 years, Potter tirelessly ensured those surrounding him flourished, providing men and women in his community with the education and tools necessary for their success. Through his humility, wisdom and quiet leadership, Potter emerges as an example of how one person possesses the power to evoke positive change, lending a kind and helping hand wherever he finds himself needed.
“I hope I left [the position] better than what I came into,” said Potter. “The previous chief had done a wonderful job, and I hope that I’ve carried that on and carried the department forward. Thank you for the privilege of serving the great citizens of Rainbow City and Etowah County.”