By Dan Scanlan
The Florida Times-Union
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Miles Richard Bowers' first job as a firefighter in 1948 was to help tackle one of Jacksonville's worst fires at a paint factory.
One of his last jobs was in 2003 when he was named the city's fire chief for the second time. He had previously led the department from 1984 to 1988.
Bowers, who served longer than any other firefighter on the force, died Tuesday after a stroke. He was 91.
His son, Rick Bowers, became a firefighter like his father and remembers how "everyone who knew him, loved him."
"But he loved the fire department. It was not just a job, it was a passion," his son said. "He wanted to serve. He wanted to make it better. … He even invented a few tools when he was in the shop to make things easier. He ate, lived and breathed fire department."
Mr. Bowers was chief when he hired new firefighter Randy Wyse, now president of the Jacksonville Association of Fire Fighters. They went to church together as well, and Wyse said he will miss his friend who led Jacksonville Fire and Rescue in difficult times after grand jury and mayoral commission reports criticized the department's management, training and planning.
"He was a fine man, no doubt about that. His son was a firefighter, and his daughter and I grew up together," Wyse said. "… He was there when there was the grand jury and he stood us through that."
Born in Hampton. S.C., his family moved to Jacksonville when his father began working at the Ford Model A plant that still exists at the downtown base of the Mathews Bridge. A Jackson High School graduate, he went straight into the Air Force and flew B-17s, some flights over Germany.
In a 2005 Times-Union story, Bowers said he "came right out of World War II" in 1946 and joined the city's highway department. Two years later he joined the fire department, spending 14 years as a mechanic in its maintenance division, sometimes working on fire engines as they battled blazes. He became chief mechanic but gave up that rank to become a firefighter in 1968. Promoted to lieutenant in 1969, he was a captain two years later, then a district chief in 1974.
"Private, engineer, lieutenant, captain, district chief, battalion chief, chief — I've done 'em all," he said in that 2005 interview, adding that he worked at every station at one time or another.
One of the worst fires he fought was his first, at an old Glidden paint factory on the Northside.
"I was new — it was a 10-alarm fire, and everything was blowing up around me," he remembered in that 2005 interview. "I wondered if I'd picked the right job."
Former Mayor Jake Godbold chose him to take over the fire department Oct. 8, 1984, replacing Irvin Griffin, who was forced to retire after the critical reports came out.
One of 62 applicants, Mr. Bowers said at the time that he did not actively seek the job. But firefighters called him a "down-to-earth, nuts-and-bolts type of fella" who could "bridge the gap" between past turmoil and the department's future.
Mr. Bowers served the end of his 57-year career at Station 10 at 1055 McDuff Ave. But in 2003, he was named interim chief until a permanent replacement could be found. He officially retired in January 2004. He also published two books on firefighting and taught classes on firefighting at local colleges. In 2005 a portion of Selma Street beside the station was renamed as Miles R. Bowers Way.
Mr. Bowers leaves behind his wife, Nancy, daughter April, son Rick and a granddaughter. He was predeceased by his first wife, Betty Jean.
Mr. Bowers' viewing will be at 5 p.m. Friday at North Jacksonville Baptist Church at 8531 N. Main St., with the funeral at 11 a.m. Saturday. Jacksonville Fire Engine 122 will be his funeral caisson with an honor guard since he was "the chief of the department," Wyse said.
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