He said in January he would retire this year. It happened Friday. He said just weeks ago he did not want “them” — his friends and family — to see him cry when he stood before them Thursday at his retirement luncheon. They did not.
Standing before the crowd of more than 100 at Bartow County Fire Department Station 1, the director of Bartow County’s Emergency Management Agency was once again in control. Thanking his family and colleagues, he never ventured into the solemn, blending humor into his speech when the tone turned too serious.
“You know, I look back over the years from the time I started this in 1960, and Dwayne [Jamison] mentioned it awhile ago, I had a fire chief down on the south end. First one I had was a … minister who had boots about 14, 16 foot big,” Payne said. “The next one I got was a gray-headed gentleman who taught me a lot. And he always told me, ‘You take care of your people and they gonna take care of you.’ That’s what I’ve tried to do all the years that I’ve been there.”
That philosophy is part of Payne’s legacy. Payne’s son, Keith Payne, said his father passed along those words of wisdom to his own family.
“My daddy has always treated people like he wanted to be treated, and when I worked for the fire department, he always told me, he said, ‘Son, whatever you do, ever how many people you get, always take care of them. Always stand up for what’s right. Always stand up, you know, and if something is wrong, tell them something is wrong. … If someone asks you for advice, give it to them. Be willing to help anybody that wants to be helped,’” Keith Payne said.
A Bartow County native, Johnny Payne served in the U.S. Army before beginning his time with the fire service in 1960. Payne worked with the Cobb County Fire Department and served as a leader in the BCFD in the southern portion of Bartow County, which the county marked by naming Station 4 in his honor.
In 1997, after 37 years in the fire service, Payne took over direction of the EMA at the request of Bartow County Commissioner Clarence Brown.
“I felt like he was the best man for the job,” Brown said Thursday. “… He’s easy to work with, dedicated. He’s on the job, he’s always been there, and he’s kept me informed.
“Like when I was joking about him calling me in the middle of the night, that’s what I liked. If something was going on, I knew what was going on. I wanted to know what was happening, so I knew if it was time for me to get up and go and check on it or if I needed to wait for his next call. He kept me right up to date on everything that was going on out there, whether it was … wind blew down a few trees or a tornado had hit or some disaster. I would just wait for his lead and I always got good leads.”
Payne’s commitment to the job is one his son said comes from his desire to help others.
“He’s been very dedicated to this line of work over the years,” Keith Payne said. “I can’t tell you the countless hours he’s probably spent working in Bartow County. I can remember times that he’s left that they’d have something to do and he’d be going in that direction instead of going to a personal function because someone needed help.”
In a January interview, Johnny Payne said his job had been a dream.
“My job, that’s what I feel like I was put on this earth for, is in public safety. And I have loved every minute of it and I love what I do now,” he said. “… I’ve loved it ever since I got started in 1960.”
Those who spoke during Thursday’s luncheon — both to the family and to the crowd — recalled Payne’s impact on their lives.
BCFD Fire Chief Craig Millsap introduced Payne to those in attendance as his “mentor.”
“Seems like I remember back to, oh, say 1993, [I had] just came to work for the county as an EMT on the ambulance, grabbed my first call down in the Allatoona district on the south end and ran into a gentleman helping a patient,” Millsap said. “I remember thinking to myself, ‘Who in the world is this old man?’ And I politely stood up and said, ‘Sir, I’m with the ambulance service. Could you back up so I can help him?’ That wasn’t the right thing to say. I learned really quick who he was, who Johnny was, and I’ve been running calls with him ever since.
“ … He kept pushing me in my career and everything I wanted. In all honesty, I can say I wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for this man.”
Before turning the floor over to Payne, Millsap jokingly offered to translate Payne’s speech afterward, a reference to Payne’s ever-present cigar. But on this day, the day he said goodbye to a group he considered family, he had laid aside the signature cigar and spoke clearly, directly from the heart.
“I learned a lot from all of you. I appreciate you, every one,” he said. “You know you’ve always been there with me, from all day on the lake or seven days on the lake. You’ve always been with me when I lost people, disasters. I’ve counted on you a lot, and I love every one of you. I’m gonna miss y’all just as much as y’all are gonna miss me, probably more.
“… With that I’m going to say bye, and I’m going to tell you, is anybody here old enough like I am, do y’all remember Red Skelton? Red Skelton, at the end of his show, he always came out and said what? May God bless. And that’s what I’m going to say.”
With that, Payne stepped away from the podium and into retirement.