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Retired Mo. fire chief dies after becoming ill

James Silvernail, 74, was remembered for his support of bringing women into the fire service, as well as his devotion to the nonprofit BackStoppers


By Christine Byers
St. Louis Post-Dispatch

CREVE COEUR, Mo. —  James “Jim” Silvernail, a long-serving fire chief in the St. Louis area and ardent supporter of the BackStoppers, died Wednesday (April 25, 2018) after falling ill in March. He was 74.

Mr. Silvernail, of Wildwood, served more than 30 years with the Metro West Fire Protection District in west St. Louis County, many of them as chief.

James Silvernail, 74, was remembered for his support of bringing women into the fire service, as well as his devotion to the nonprofit BackStoppers. (Photo/Metro West Fire Protection District)
James Silvernail, 74, was remembered for his support of bringing women into the fire service, as well as his devotion to the nonprofit BackStoppers. (Photo/Metro West Fire Protection District)

He left that department in February 2003. Then, about five years later, he became chief of the Mehlville Fire Protection District, where he retired in April 2010.

But those who knew him best say his love for the BackStoppers matched his devotion to the fire service.

His steadfast support of the nonprofit organization could have been a full-time job had he been paid. Mr. Silvernail was a fixture at fundraisers and events, whether they involved heavy media presence like the annual Guns ’N Hoses boxing show or a child raising money at a lemonade stand in front of their house without any cameras, said Ron Battelle, executive director of the BackStoppers.

The nonprofit provides financial support to families of fallen first responders. One of the most solemn duties Mr. Silvernail performed in his role as an advisory board member to the nonprofit was accompanying Battelle to meet with the families to deliver the first check and explain the organization’s lifelong commitment to them.

The visits often happen within hours of immediate family members being notified of their loved one’s death, as was the case for Elizabeth Snyder. Her husband, St. Louis County police Officer Blake Snyder, was fatally shot while responding to a disturbance in October 2016.

“Ever since then, (Mr. Silvernail) was like a second dad to me,” Elizabeth Snyder said Thursday. “After Blake was taken, he would text me almost every day for the first week. He was so reassuring, very kind. But he didn’t really have to say anything, it was kind of like you just knew he was going to be there for you.”

Mr. Silvernail’s ability to connect in moments of tragedy and his devotion to the BackStoppers most likely stemmed from his own experience, Battelle said. In March 1968, he and a Creve Coeur police officer, Larry Howard, were rushing a pregnant woman to a hospital in a police car with lights and sirens blaring when they were T-boned by a truck. Howard was killed, the baby was born dead and Mr. Silvernail was thrown from the vehicle, requiring months of recovery, Battelle said.

The nonprofit was founded just nine years before the accident, and Howard’s survivors, including a wife and two children, remain beneficiaries.

Mr. Silvernail was named at age 36 in 1980 as chief of the Ballwin Fire Protection District, which would later become Metro West. He was noted for his support of bringing women into the fire service, according to a 1993 profile of Mr. Silvernail for the Post-Dispatch headlined “Chief climbed ladder of selflessness.

“I plan to live till I’m 100, and die with an ax in my hand!” he told the newspaper.

But for as kind and supportive as he was, friends say he wasn’t shy about expressing his opinions, or defending himself.

He clashed with the Metro West Fire Protection District board in 2002 after being asked about his decision to let a chaplain drive a fire department vehicle with emergency lights flashing to McDonald’s during a fire in 102-degree heat. He said there was no one else available and his firefighters needed food and drinks.

Ultimately he retired at odds with his former board at Metro West.

The headline on a May 2005 Post-Dispatch article about his transition to the Mehlville fire district declared “Fiery fire chief looks to future in Mehlville,” and described how some employees viewed him as a foul-mouthed, bombastic personality while others revered him. Mr. Silvernail was extensively quoted in the article, admitting he lost his temper and made harassing phone calls to those he believed weren’t treating him fairly.

Battelle said Mr. Silvernail later confessed he had regrets about the situation, “But he told me he did what he thought he needed to do,” Battelle said.

Despite the acrimony, his former department hosted a news conference Thursday to announce Mr. Silvernail’s final arrangements. Metro West Chief G. Michael Krause III said Silvernail served the district’s residents with “the utmost distinction and honor for over 30 years.”

Visitation for Mr. Silvernail is set for noon to 8 p.m. Tuesday at Schrader Funeral Home and Crematory in Ballwin, 14960 Manchester Road. On Wednesday, a memorial Mass will be celebrated at 10 a.m. at the St. Louis Cathedral Basilica, followed by interment at a cemetery in Ballwin.

Among the survivors are his wife, Marian Silvernail; a son, Jim Silvernail Jr., the fire chief in Kirkwood; and a daughter, Michelle Silvernail Holtmeyer.

In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to BackStoppers.

Copyright 2018 St. Louis Post-Dispatch

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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