Charleston loses a great leader

Hazel Wine Jr.

They buried Hazel Wine Jr. on Saturday, his family and friends gathered graveside on a beautiful Lowcountry sea island.

Wine was not famous, rarely had his name in the newspaper or on the television, but he spent decades serving this community -- and Charleston is a little poorer without him.

Wine, 67, served for more than 30 years in the Charleston Fire Department, retiring in 2006 as a battalion chief. He was, his friends say, a leader of men, a mentor to young firefighters.

A soft-spoken man who ran a tight ship, Wine commanded respect as easily as he gave it.

"He made sure everybody did their job," Assistant Chief Raymond Lloyd says. "He was honest, fair and he could be tough. We'd have a fire and he'd say, 'Bro, we've got to get it done because I'm not going to call for any help.' And we'd get it done."

Changing times

When Wine joined the fire department in the '60s, it was unofficially segregated. He was assigned to the ladder company on Coming Street, a station staffed entirely by black firefighters. The white firefighters worked for the pumper company.

That's just the way things were.

In the early '70s, when the department began joining the modern age, Wine volunteered to go work on the pumpers, to lead the way. Fire department veterans say he became a leader then; whatever personality conflicts arose in those days were smoothed over by Wine. His skills did not go unnoticed. Shortly after becoming chief, Rusty Thomas promoted Wine to battalion chief. He was one of the first black firefighters to rise to such a lofty post.

"What you saw was what you got," Thomas says. "He knew his job and his guys knew their jobs. He demanded respect, and he got it."

These days, people around the fire halls remember him for his ingenuity and his professionalism. His friends say you'd be hard-pressed to find a firefighter who didn't like him. If you did, it would be someone he chewed out at one time or another.

And if Wine dressed them down, they deserved it.

A second family

When the department lost nine men in the Sofa Super Store fire in 2007, Wine had been retired for little more than a year.

Still, he came back to help his men get through the most trying ordeal of their careers.

"He came to every funeral, every eulogy -- he was there in uniform," Lloyd says. "Since he was retired, he could have just come to the big service and no one would have thought anything about it. He went above and beyond."

That's likely because Wine realized he was part of something larger than a simple collection of co-workers. The fire department is a brotherhood, folks who risk their lives every day to keep other people safe. They stick together, in part because people like Wine showed them how.

Hazel Wine Jr.'s life is a lesson in professionalism and dignity.

And for that, Charleston owes him a good deal of thanks.