People know Jim Bollinger around Marble Hill, Missouri. Customers wave to him as he lunches in a booth at Jer’s Restaurant on a slow Monday afternoon. The waitress greets him by name.

He’s polite but shies from accolades so much that the recognition of being named by the Southeast Missourian editorial board as 2016’s Spirit of America Award winner brings him a mild but good-natured pang of unease.

But you don’t get away with being as involved as he is without people noticing.

Since he moved back to Missouri in 1971, it seems he’s been collecting titles. Fire chief, deputy sheriff, deputy coroner — his sentences tend to land around the phrase “been doin’ it ever since.”

As a boy in Bell City, Missouri, he remembers the grocery store his parents owned and the chores they made him do. He credits them with sparking his interest in community service.

“When we were young lads … in the cold of winter in the early ’50s, Bell City was divided by a train track, so you had people on the other side of the tracks, so to speak,” he said over chicken and mashed potatoes. “They would burn coal for heat, and the store burned coal for heat, so we’d come home and my mother would make us each get a bushel basket, you know, for apples? And carry a load of coal across the tracks to the poor people who didn’t have any coal.”

It’s a cherished memory, even if at the time he’d been a brat about it.

“We’d cry and complain; you know how kids are,” he said. “But now looking back on it, you see what she was trying to do.”

Bell City also was where he was introduced to firefighting.

“In 1961 or ’62, Bell City got a new water system and a new firetruck,” he said, flipping through the pictures on his phone for the snapshot of an antique fire rig.

“This was their first firetruck,” he said, a glint of boyish pride in his voice.

Firefighters were his boyhood heroes, and his boyhood ambitions aligned accordingly. By his junior year of college, he had personally petitioned the dean for permission to form United Methodist College’s first student fire and rescue squad. He served as its first chief, conducting fire drills in the dormitories on campus.

But the war in Vietnam had cast a shadow across the futures of American men of his age, and his older brother Gene — a Marine and Korean War veteran — said between infantry and aviation, flight was the savvier prospect.

So Bollinger became a naval aviator, flying F-4 Phantoms and becoming a naval legal officer — the military version of a paralegal — before getting out to move to Waynesville, Missouri, to work at his brother’s bank.

He seems to have kept the military hairstyle and fastidiousness, judging from the way he wipes the condensation from the table after every sip of iced tea. But his return to Missouri marked a career shift and Bollinger’s return to firefighting.

“Two days after I moved there, I joined the fire department,” he said, nodding as another patron enters the restaurant.

“After a while, I was assistant chief. Then I moved down here and joined the fire department. Been here ever since.”

He made fire chief in two years, and in 1976, he became a reserve sheriff’s deputy.

“And I’ve been one ever since.”

Bollinger’s professional philosophy seems delineated more by necessity than by job titles; he naturally gravitates to whatever work needs doing.

“In the Navy, when you don’t have enough room for every job on the ship, you double up,” he explains. “When I wasn’t flying, I was working a desk job.”

When he noticed the coroner’s office was understaffed, he figured he and the coroner typically ended up responding to the same calls anyway.

“So I’ve been a deputy coroner ever since.”

Around the same time, he served as Bollinger County emergency management director.

He peers over folded hands, apparently tired of talking titles.

“Quite frankly, it’s not all about helping the community,” he said. “There’s a lot of selfishness involved. I enjoy this kind of work.”

Rather than ingratitude, the protestations come from Bollinger’s gentle embarrassment.

“Some people golf, some people fish,” he said, trying to wave it all off like a gnat. “I just do this.”

But personal satisfaction won’t negate the value of his service nor the credit due him, even if Bollinger would have it so.

He said he’s not a goody-two-shoes, and that his is a fairly common disposition among people in his line of work.

But if he must acquiesce to recognition, he makes sure to share the spotlight.

“My guys make me look good. There’s not a single thing I’ve done on the fire department that I could have done without them. It’s teamwork,” he said.

He also is grateful for his family’s patience in putting up with the emotional wear-and-tear inherent in first responders’ work.

He wipes his hands to leave and pushes his plate away, checking his daily schedule. He’s got time to stand for a quick photo, he said, but then he’s really got to be back to work.

By Tyler Graef ~ Southeast Missourian