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Ken Cowart, right, retired in 2006 but has been busy volunteering ever since then.

Most people relax in retirement but if Ken Cowart did anything after he retired from the Alexander City Fire Department in 2006, he sped up.

Instead of taking a much deserved break, Cowart stepped up his public service. Volunteering is something he enjoys.

“I just want to help people,” Cowart said. “It is in my blood to help people in a time of need. I just volunteer because people need help. I want to help any way I can.”

Cowart currently serves as president of the Alexander City/Tallapoosa County Rescue Squad, volunteers with the American Red Cross providing emergency services mainly to victims of fires across several counties and is an assistant coroner in Tallapoosa County. 

Some retire to spend more time with family. Cowart said his job with the fire department afforded him more time with family.

“I worked one day and was off two days,” Cowart said. “I spent more time with my kids than my wife did going to school functions. She couldn’t get off (work) a majority of it. I enjoyed it; life has been good to me.”

Cowart’s wife, Cathy, still works in the healthcare field as a nurse at Jim Pearson Elementary School. Plus she gets to see her husband a little beyond their home.

“She is a member of the rescue squad and also volunteers with the Red Cross,” Cowart said. “She goes with me to fires. She still works but will hit the road with me when she can.”

Cowart has been working with the rescue squad since he started with ACFD.

“I’ve been with the rescue squad since 1976 helping. I wasn’t an official member until 1990 somewhere around the time of the Blan Stewart plane crash. They drafted a letter and told me I was a full-fledged member now.”

Stewart’s plane went missing around Lake Martin on Halloween 1988 and was found two years later by divers.

Cowart is like a walking billboard for the rescue squad.

“A lot of the (local) meetings I don’t have to go, but it looks good for the rescue squad,” Cowart said. “I want to keep us out there to let everyone know we are serving the community.”

The rescue squad does more than just help find missing people. Members of the squad helped Meals on Wheels deliver its Chick-fil-A meals for a fundraiser earlier this month.

Being president of the rescue squad takes a special person, according to Cowart.

“You have to be dedicated,” Cowart said. “You can’t work a 40-hour job and lead. If you do, our rescue squad is going to go downhill in a hurry.”

Cowart has helped the rescue squad expand its footprint beyond Tallapoosa County but not sacrifice what it does at home.

“If Tallapoosa County is OK we will go assist but with the understanding if something happens here we will need to come back,” Cowart said. “If a hurricane is coming, we stay here until we know what will happen. We won’t take everything but will take some stuff.”

The rescue squad helped in Lee County following tornadoes in March. It helped with the recovery of a crashed helicopter near Clanton. The deserved attention at such disasters has afforded the group to be awarded grants to get new equipment like a side-scan sonar, one of two in the state.

“(Granting agencies) know we will take care of it,” Cowart said. “We will also share our time and equipment with others.”

Cowart’s service with the Red Cross helps those in immediate need after disasters especially home fires. 

“With the Red Cross, I get to a fire, you give them a little assistance to get them by for a few days,” Cowart said. “They are still in shock. They don’t know what to do.”

Friday he responded to a fire in Alexander City helping the family figure out what services were available after a mother perished in a blaze. Then he traveled to Cleburne County to help a survivor.

“(The fire survivor in Cleburne County), he doesn’t have a driver’s license,” Cowart said. “It burned up. Everything he had burned up in the fire, but they got out.”

Cowart said the Red Cross helps fire victims regardless of income because it is few days before insurance kicks in or local organizations like a church can mobilize.

“We get them some clothes, some food and a motel for a couple days,” Cowart said. “When your wallet burns up, your plastic burns up with it. What the Red Cross provides will get them by for a little bit until the next steps like insurance kick in.”

Volunteering for both the rescue squad and the Red Cross helps both organizations.

“A lot of times I’ll be out with the rescue squad let’s say in Talladega County on a drowning or missing person,” Cowart said. “I’ll call Red Cross in Birmingham and say we need food to speed the process up. I know what to say and what we need. These smaller counties don’t know what to do. They might have supplies from a church. Every little bit helps.”

Cowart is rewarded equally with both organizations

“When you’re looking for a missing person or victim, it is a challenge,” Cowart said. “You work hard at it. It may not be the outcome you want to be at the end, but it helps provide closure for a family. I have gotten hugs from family members after finding a drowning victim and after letting a fire victim know what the Red Cross can do.”

More volunteers are needed for all organizations.

“I wish more would volunteer,” Cowart said. “We always need volunteers. With the Red Cross, you might not like what I do with disaster services but there are other things you can do. For instance services to Armed Forces, blood donations, soliciting, there a lot of things you can do.

“With the rescue squad, there are always things you can do. It can just be a helper or someone with a lot of knowledge or willing to learn.”

Cowart said he will continue to volunteer and hopes others will find service as enjoyable.

“It just fills my heart,” Cowart said. “I want to help. As long as I’m healthy and able to do it, I will do it. I think we should do all we can while we’re here on Earth.”

Cliff Williams is a staff writer for Tallapoosa Publishers.