Columbus Fire Chief Paxton 'comfortable' in new role
Gregory A. Paxton didn't always dream of the wail of sirens and daring fire rescues.
Paxton, who was recently appointed chief of the Columbus Division of Fire, wanted to be an astronaut.
"It was exciting," he said. "And it was captivating when I was growing up."
Paxton had his sights set on being the first person to land on Mars.
"The moon wasn't big enough for me," he joked.
But real life intervened.
After college, he was kicking around Columbus, working construction jobs when a friend suggested he take the firefighters test.
After passing, "The rest is history," said the 31-year veteran of the Division of Fire.
Paxton, 59, grew up in Upper Arlington and graduated from Bishop Watterson High School.
He got his bachelor's degree with the objective of becoming a doctor, but decided it wasn't for him.
After passing his first exam to become a lieutenant, he quickly ascended through the ranks, eventually becoming assistant fire chief, the next in line for the top job.
He was chosen from a list of seven candidates to replace Ned Pettus, who retired in the spring. He has spent the last 10 years in an administrative position at the Fire Division's headquarters on the South Side.
Paxton, who makes $155,188 a year, is in charge of 1,600 employees and an annual budget of more than $217 million.
"It's a comfortable chair for me," said Paxton, the city's 23rd chief in the division's 157-year history.
"I'm not intimidated by that," he said. It's really an incentive to work hard and do good things."
Whereas firefighters often have disparate personalities, at their core the are sensitive and nurturing, Paxton said.
"This is a very altruistic job," he said. "You get a tremendous return for what you do. You're coming to (citizens') aid when they need you the most."
He figures he's been on hundreds of fire runs, which are exciting -- but also sobering.
"There's always exhilaration because it's the wildest ride you've ever been on,"Paxton said. "It's also, at times, scary. Sometimes it's a gut check and always it's a cause for self-reflection."
The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, left an indelible impression on Paxton. He visited Ground Zero with other fire officials from Columbus.
Most of his time was spent at funerals for firefighters who died in the collapse of the Twin Towers.
The city recently honored the fallen with ceremonies throughout town.
Paxton is divorced and lives in Grandview Heights. He spoke at a "Blue Mass" at St. Timothy Catholic Church.
"This is huge for us," he said. "I know people who died. It's a very poignant reminder and it's a sad one."
While the rancor surrounding Ohio's Senate Bill 5 has subsided, it's still a topic fresh on the minds of firefighters.
The legislation, which would have stripped most collective-bargaining rights for public workers, was repealed by Ohio voters last year.
Paxton, who opposed the legislation, sees it as a home-rule matter: Each municipality should be able set the retirement and medical benefits for its employees, he said.
"It's a basic philosophical disagreement," he said.
Already having earned a master's degree from Ohio State University, where he also received his bachelor's degree, Paxton is in a doctoral program at the Fisher College of Business at OSU. He figures he'll be done in a couple of years, with a long-term goal of becoming a professor.
While he is eligible for retirement from the Fire Division, he plans to stick around for the foreseeable future.
"I still have some work to do," he said. "As long as the mayor and safety director will have me, I will continue to do this job to the best of my ability."
And, yes, he has a good chili recipe, the ingredients of which he prefers to keep a secret.
"It's going to be hot, though," Paxton said.