CRANBERRY TWP — Friends and family describe him as a dedicated public servant, a “colorful figure,” a natural leader, a “tough SOB” but a “big softie,” a loving father and husband.
Eugene “Gene” Anthony Winters, the longest-serving Cranberry Township fire chief, passed away Saturday at age 76. But while the communities he touched will have to find a way forward without him, they will embrace the long-lasting legacy he left behind.
When Winters came to the township, his son Todd recalled, he didn't want to become too involved with the fire company. He promised his family he would become only a member, operating a fire hose.
From 1986 to 1995 he served as the Cranberry Township Volunteer Fire Company chief, guiding the company through a time of great change in both the company and township.
“As the community changed, he made sure our fire company stayed on pace with the growth,” Bruce Hezlep, township supervisor and member of the CTVFC, said.
To the fire company, Winters gave the impression it was its job to stay ahead of the curve as the community saw breakneck populaton growth. In 1980, before he became chief, Cranberry had a population of 11,000, but by the end of his tenure it had more than doubled to 23,600.
“He brought the fire company up to date in his time period,” Todd Winters said. Todd Winters joined the company with his father, later becoming his assistant chief.
He ran a tight ship, but it was necessary given both the community's growth and the inherent dangers of firefighting, Hezlep said. But that didn't mean he wouldn't let the company have fun.
One year when the township lit the Christmas tree, some members of the company put lights on a brush fire truck — “How many brush fires do you get in December?” Hezlep recalled — and took it to the ceremony.
There was, in fact, a brush fire that day, and the company's only brush-fire truck was at the tree lighting.
“Everybody was worried that Gene might give them hell, but he just looked the other way and said Merry Christmas,' ” Hezlep said.
Gene Winters' “soft side,” as Hezlep called it, wasn't hidden, either. Todd Winters said anybody who had a chance to speak with his father found out he was a “big softie.”
“Nobody you'd talk to would say he was a bad guy or a mean guy,” Todd Winters said. “He was just so far down to earth. Anybody who knew him would tell you he had a heart of gold. The friendship and the love that he showed was just remarkable.”
His eldest son, Brett Winters, said there were instances within the family when he would look the other way when a son might have needed discipline. He recalled a time where he sat at a bar in New York, where the drinking age was lower than in his home state of New Jersey, and his father walked in and looked at him.
“All he said to me was, 'Guess you're buying tonight,' ” Brett Winters said. “He, at times, would show compassion and say 'I pulled that ... too.' ”
Friends say his caring for others is what drove Gene Winters to the helm of the fire company and what made him an effective leader. “At the end of the day, he was all about serving our residents and keeping our fire company on pace with the growth our community was experiencing at the time,” Hezlep said.
Even after he stepped down from the post with the CTVFC, Gene Winters' work with the company and for Cranberry didn't end.
After retirement, he served as groundskeeper at Cranberry Highlands Golf Course.
Hezlep said Gene Winters' legacy — of dedication, public service and taking care of his family, both in the fire company and at home — continues to touch the township.
“He served the residents of the community, not only as a firefighter, but also in his post-retirement job,” he said. “I think that says a lot about the man's dedication.”