Wayne Hartness, a local hero who fought fires proudly, lost his battle with cancer in September 2015. Last month, his name was added to a local fallen firefighters memorial.
Those who knew him well said the dedication was bittersweet, noting that while he was well-deserving of a noble honor, it was a painful memory and realization that he is forever gone.
Hartness served the Wooster Fire Department for 33 years. Ten of those, he served as fire chief. He also worked for the Conway Fire Department for 23 years.
"He was a hard worker, loyal, God and family oriented and put others' needs in front of his own," Conway Fire Chief Mike Winter said of Hartness. "Placing a name on the Fallen Firefighter Memorial is not something that you ever want to do. However, it is a way to honor and always remember those who have given their life for another."
At age 52, the Wooster resident and long-time firefighter died of colon cancer on Sept. 7, 2015. While he is forever remembered as a fighter, he ultimately lost his toughest battle. State officials later determined his career caused his death.
"It was determined by the State of Arkansas that his cancer was caused by the toxins encountered from being a firefighter," Winter said, adding he truly believed Hartness was nothing short of an absolute public servant. "Wayne was the type of firefighter that you want all of your firefighters to be like. Dedicated, loyal, hardworking, putting others' needs in front of your own. A true public servant."
Nearly three years since Wayne died, his wife of nearly 32 years, Donna, still gets emotional as she remembers her husband's battle.
The two were soulmates.
"We were your typical high school sweethearts. He was a football player. I was a cheerleader," Donna said.
Both attended Greenbrier High School and began dating during Wayne's senior year of high school. Donna, who was a year younger than Wayne, said they soon married after she graduated the following year.
The two were wed Oct. 15, 1982.
Donna said God placed the right man into her life when he chose Wayne to be her husband.
The couple had two children together -- Clay, who also serves the Conway Fire Department, and Ricki, who is a registered nurse at Arkansas Children's Hospital.
"He was a great father to his children, and they learned a lot from him," Donna said.
A retirement reception was held in Wayne's honor on Aug. 4, 2015, as he bid farewell to the crew he'd served at the Conway Fire Department for more than 20 years. Hundreds attended the ceremony, and his son spoke of a few of their memories as he also defined Wayne as a hero.
Clay stood before the massive crowd and remembered driving home from North Carolina after his father's diagnosis. When they reached the overpass at the first Conway exit, they were met by five fire trucks that were waiting to greet Wayne.
"First thing Dad said, in Wayne Hartness manner, was: 'Did you know about that? Why didn't you take a picture,'" Clay said during his father's retirement reception.
As he continued telling his story, he said there were three more firetrucks at the next exit and three more sitting by Beaver Fork Park, which fell in line with the father and son to create a procession of sorts. When the two arrived to Wooster, the streets were lined with those in support of Wayne all the way through town to the four-way stop.
"These are people that he's touched throughout the fire service, throughout his life, because of who he is," Clay said in August 2015. "Two weeks after that, we were riding in the car and he looks at me and says, 'You know, I didn't deserve that. That was a hero's welcome.' I told him, Dad, that's exactly what you are. You're my hero and you're everybody's hero."
Wayne dedicated his entire adult life to his family and fighting fires.
This lifestyle wasn't always easy on those who loved him. However, his wife said she knew he was meant to help others, even when that often meant abruptly leaving family events.
"It was hard at sometimes, especially with him being a volunteer," she said. "When they were paged out, he had to go. When they're called out, they have to leave. Sometimes, that meant leaving family get-togethers, dinners and birthday parties. I knew it was what he loved and lived for. He loved helping people."
CFD Cpt. Rick Powell worked alongside Wayne for 20 years.
While the two didn't work closely together for a large portion of that time, Powell told the Log Cabin he grew to know Wayne quite well and will always respect the late firefighter as a brother and a fighter.
"I met Wayne in 1996 when I was first hired on at the Conway Fire Department," Powell recalled. "I've known Wayne for 20 years. People assume when you work together, you see each other often. In reality, it could be a year or longer before you see them, because we have many different shifts and stations."
As the years passed, the two eventually began to work closely together.
Chief Winter appointed Powell to travel with Wayne after Wayne fell ill. The two traveled together and educated others, spreading awareness of cancer to firefighters across the state.
The project spurred because Wayne wanted to spread knowledge of the potential dangers and health risks that comes along with serving others as a firefighter.
"He developed his own PowerPoint on the risk of the exposure of fire fighting [and] we went across the state together and shared this information to other fire departments," Powell said. "We traveled daily together and I grew to love him more each day as we spent many hours together. The last slide in the slideshow was a picture of him where he announced he had cancer.
"As we traveled across the state, each day was getting difficult for him and I never knew which day would be the last time he would show the final slide. Each time the last slide was played, we always wished for a different ending. I wanted the good guy to win."
Donna said educating others on the risks associated with fighting fire was important to Wayne.
Habits that were once considered tradition to many firefighters were later determined killers, such as not immediately washing off soot and rubble after extinguishing a blazing home, or never cleaning the building soot from one's turnout gear, she said.
"These were killers, and he wanted others to know the dangers," Donna told the Log Cabin.
The late fireman's widow wept as she recalled memories of her husband.
Three years has not been enough time to heal after being touched so dearly by a great man, she said.
"Through his love of God, he was an icon in our church. He put God first," she said, adding the two held deeply onto two Bible verses -- 1 Corinthians 16:13 and Joshua 1:9.
"Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be courageous; be strong," she recited through tears. Followed by Joshua's reading: "Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go."
Donna said Wayne always wanted to live and serve others to the best of his ability. How he felt often was pushed aside.
Looking back on Wayne's life, Donna recalled two times where Wayne rescheduled his treatment so as to not miss out on events important to him.
The 2014 Arkansas Fallen Firefighters Memorial was scheduled to take place March 22, 2014. The Friday before the Saturday ceremony, Wayne was to undergo his first round of treatment. However, he wanted to honor those who served before him and fell in the line of duty.
"He put surgery off from Friday until Monday so he could be at the unveiling even though he was hurting," Donna said, adding that Wayne also delayed a treatment for an Easter ceremony at their church. "He was going to have another surgery before Easter, but he put off the surgery until the following Monday. He put that off because he didn't want to miss church. We also had family members coming in who hadn't been [by] in a while."
Those close to Wayne said his work ethic was astounding, despite the pain he was feeling.
"Wayne's work ethic was a willingness to work hard. He would be the first one there and the last one to leave. If one of our trucks was dirty, he would be detailing it," Powell said of his late friend. "He was one of the most genuine human beings I have ever known. He defined the meaning of kind. He never met a stranger and helped everyone in need. I'm blessed because I became a part of his family."
Just as Clay said during his father's retirement ceremony in August 2015, Powell reiterated years later that Wayne was a local hero.
"This guy was everyone's hero. He was selfless and genuinely a good person," Cpt. Powell said. "Wayne was a real hero -- a fireman putting his life at risk for others. He was a great fire fighter, but a better human being."
Prior to his death, Wayne told Powell if other surrounding fire departments covered Conway shifts while Conway firefighters attended his funeral, he wanted to send his gratitude for their service. After the funeral, Powell said he and Markann Young delivered lunch to each of those who covered CFD shifts and personally said thank you on Wayne's behalf for each who stood in for CFD firefighters.
Donna said she never heard her husband complain after he was diagnosed with cancer. He only wanted to continue serving others.