The average motorist may not give much attention to the "Think" signs that mark the spots of fatal accidents along the state's roadways.
But after serving 31 years with the Mitchell Fire Division, Steve Willis has plenty of powerful memories attached to some of those somber black, white and red signs.
"If I was at that scene, I can go back ... and see it," said Willis, assistant fire chief for the city's Department of Public Safety.
The state re-started the "Think" program in 1979, the same year a young Willis chose to leave a job at his parents' wholesale candy and tobacco distribution business and pursue an interest in saving lives. More than 30 years later, Willis has announced he is ending his career with the local fire department, choosing to trade the sounds of screeching sirens and crackling radios for quality family time and the pursuit of hobbies.
Don't let Willis' title fool you. Because the city's police, traffic and fire divisions all fall under the umbrella of the Mitchell Department of Public Safety, Willis' title as assistant is purely technical. Since his promotion from captain in 1999, Willis has been in charge of maintaining the city's fire department.
The transition from firefighter to administrator wasn't an easy one for Willis, 53, who says it's in his nature to head straight into trouble, as opposed to keeping his distance and playing the role of incident commander.
"It's just like a young pup on a leash. (You've) got to keep him tied up or he'll be running all over the place," Willis said, smiling. "You have to train yourself. You have to let them handle it."
He'll leave the department with the memories of those he helped, but also those he couldn't help, too. During his early days as a firefighter, it didn't take long for the number of fatal accidents he encountered to rise above 60, a number that Willis admits isn't seen during some firefighters' entire careers.
"It just happened to be my number," Willis said.
While he can remember every death he encountered during his career, he's quick to bring up the brighter side of working for the Department of Public Safety, whether it was donning scuba gear to recover a murder weapon, leading a drug task force in a National Guard helicopter or simply seeing a mother take a first look at her newborn baby.
Willis hasn't had a drink since receiving treatment for alcohol abuse 28 years ago. He said being in the business of public safety and recovering from an addiction take a similar mental discipline.
"It takes as much work to keep yourself safe and clean and clear in your mind as it does for an alcoholic not to go back in that bar and start drinking again," Willis said. "You've got to be very careful with it because it can get overwhelming at times."
Willis gives full credit to his family, coworkers and friends for helping him maintain that level of clarity for more than three decades.
"There isn't anybody in the service that can say that it doesn't bother them," Willis said. "You just need to have good support and have a higher power of some kind."
On Jan. 9, Willis will say goodbye to a department full of the very friends and peers who provided support throughout years of fires, car accidents and emergency medical treatment. He's looking forward to spending more time with his wife, Kathleen, and daughters Olivia, 16, and Hannah, 12, as well as his adult children Michael, 30; Ryan, 21; and Jimmy, 18.
Even after he decided to retire, it took Willis nearly a month to submit his letter of resignation. With fewer than four months until his retirement, he admits being apprehensive about his final day on the job.
"As nuts as this sounds, this is as exciting and scary as the first day you come to work," Willis said.
He's quick to admit that he'll miss the wail of the mechanical siren on Engine No. 8 -- a vehicle he helped design -- and the other sights, sounds and smells that have surrounded him for 31 years.
Willis, however, says it's time to trade in his uniform and badge for hunting, hot rods, photography, woodwork and, of course, family.
"I'm cutting an umbilical cord to my profession, to my friends and to the most exciting, newsworthy profession in the world," Willis said. "I will miss it beyond belief."