There are bosses, and then there are bosses for whom you’d run through fire.
Ask those who served under him, and they’ll tell you Melvin “Slick” Abernethy was the latter.
Abernethy – who served just shy of 40 years with the Flint Hill Volunteer Fire Department, including two decades as chief – died Nov. 5. He was 80.
“He was a good leader that people wanted to follow out of respect,” said Chief David Jennings, who was assistant chief under Abernethy for 18 years. “He was one of the most dedicated fire department members I have ever known.”
A butcher by trade, Abernethy, who was born in 1934 in Mecklenburg County, N.C., retired as a meat manager with A&P grocery stores. He loved motorcycles and RV trips with his wife, Barbara Abernethy, before she died in February. He loved Sunday mornings, serving as a church deacon.
Abernethy also loved fire service.
“He came up in the fire service from the bottom up,” said Mike Davis, chaplain under Abernethy, and recently promoted to captain with Flint Hill. “When you get a chief, it’s what makes a department. He’s a chief who led by example.”
Abernethy was quick-witted and kept volunteers loose between calls. He was always good for a joke. Abernethy wasn’t overbearing when he asked for something, although he did expect that it get done.
“Absolutely outstanding chief to work under,” Davis said. “He was a people person. He got along with everybody, but he made sure things got done. You knew you had to do it when he said it.”
Jennings said firefighters worked to make their leader proud.
“Melvin meant everything to our department,” he said. “Everybody went out of their way to accomplish whatever Melvin wanted to do because you did not want to let him down.”
Abernethy’s commitment to firefighting rubbed off on his family. His son Sidney, who died almost a decade ago, was a firefighter. Daughters Patty and Julie grew up with a father they’d share with others in need.
“It didn’t matter what time it was, how cold it was, how hot it was,” said Julie Smith. “He was going on that call.”
Smith recalls a father devoted to his family, including his wife of 60 years. Firefighters say much of Abernethy’s time away from the station was spent with family.
“We didn’t have to want for anything,” Smith said. “He would do anything to take care of you.”
But, Smith said, the Flint Hill department’s transition from a rural to suburban fire district mattered to her father. He was influential in getting the station built on U.S. 21, and later a substation near Gold Hill Road.
“He never complained,” Smith said. “He was happy doing for others.”
The Flint Hill Fire Department serves 20 square miles and responds to more than 1,000 calls per year. It includes about 20,000 residents and 750 businesses, from upscale subdivisions in unincorporated Fort Mill to Carowinds and manufacturing sites. Neighboring departments include four municipalities and volunteer agencies in two states.
Flint Hill also has a special fire tax district that, in recent years, has been a model for other volunteer departments. The tax district allows for a mix of paid and volunteer firefighters, and for equipment to serve the area.
Once, Abernethy, named firefighter of the year eight times, got a little closer to fire service than he might have wanted. After a heart attack, he moved from his long-time home near Flint Hill Baptist Church to Rock Hill. The move provided a training opportunity for the department.
“We actually burned his old house down,” Davis said. “We fixed him a place up there to sit and watch.”
Considerable change came to the department during Abernethy’s service, not just in population growth, but in areas like electronic filing of incident reports. Some things didn’t change. In his new role, Davis has more on-site responsibility during fires. The role gives him more appreciation for what a chief like Abernethy did so many years in deciding who does what amid dangerous situations.
“Trust and faith,” Davis said. “That they know what they’re sending you into.”
Those tense moments made the lighter ones that much more meaningful, firefighters say.
“Our meetings were always fun because you never knew what was coming out of his mouth,” Jennings said. “He always had us laughing. But he was a humble man who never wanted to take credit for himself.”
After 20 years as chief, even in handing the role to someone so experienced, Abernethy agreed to serve as assistant chief for a year when Jennings asked.
“Of course he did just to help me out,” Jennings said.