CLEARVIEW — The new fire chief at Snohomish County Fire District 7 has a big mustache to fill.
Gary Meek, 63, retired this month after 40 years with the fire district. Taking his place is clean-shaven Kevin O’Brien, former Lake Stevens Fire chief.
Meek’s retirement party Wednesday at Station 71 drew about 100 people, including many firefighters in dress uniform. His mom was there, too.
A slideshow flashed images of the firefighter over the years, as his signature Fu Manchu ‘stache went from brown to gray.
“It’s pretty much always been there,” Meek said. “I told my wife I was going to shave it for today and she goes, ‘Nobody would recognize you.’”
Meek grew up in Monroe. He served four years in the U.S. Navy in the fire department aboard the USS Enterprise. He started as a District 7 trainee firefighter and worked his way up the pole. Positions included firefighter/EMT, battalion chief, fire marshal and assistant chief before taking the top post in 2011.
“I never set out to be a fire chief,” Meek said. “I just liked helping people.”
His focus was on breaking down fire district boundaries and working collaboratively with other fire agencies. He led the district through voter-approved mergers with Monroe Fire District 3 in 2016 and with Lake Stevens Fire on Jan. 1. He supported a regional training academy for standardized firefighter training throughout the county.
“He’s one of the good guys,” District 7 Board Chairman Roy Waugh said. “I can’t say that about all the chiefs that I’ve run into over the last 48 years. There’s no BS. He shoots straight and he listens to what everybody has to say before he makes any final decision.”
Gene Whiteside, a retired firefighter, recalled when Meek joined the district as a rookie.
“Gary was chief material. We just knew. He had it,” Whiteside said.
At Wednesday’s party, he offered Meek a job at his business, Whiteside Towing, in Snohomish.
“There’s no one more dependable than a fireman,” Whiteside said.
Meek declined the job offer. He couldn’t say what he was going to do next, a question he was asked about 35 times.
“I’ll be involved with something, because I’m not one to sit around and do nothing,” Meek said. “It’s a transition to step out of this position and I’ve just got to wrap my head around it.”
Maybe he’ll learn to sleep later than 5:30 a.m.
He looks forward to spending more time with his eight grandchildren — “my fountain of youth,” he said. He plans to log more miles on his Harley-Davidson motorcycle. He and his wife, Peggy, are taking a trip to Hawaii.
His mom, Clara, said she hopes to see him more. “He has been so busy,” she said.
Kevin O’Brien, the new chief, was with the Auburn Fire Department for the first 21 years of his career. He was fire chief on Orcas Island before taking over in 2015 at Lake Stevens Fire. He and his schoolteacher wife have three sons, one who recently tested to be a firefighter. An uncle and great-uncle were firefighters.
So, is he going to grow a mustache like Meek?
“I don’t know if anybody can,” he said.