When Dr. William Becker isn’t in the classroom, you might find him advising the Bellarmine University Gaming Club (BUG), where he uses his impressive gaming skills as a champion in the strategy game Railways of the World. But on Sundays, you’ll find him at the Worthington Fire Department, where he recently celebrated 25 years of service as chaplain.
Dr. Becker, who has taught philosophy and ethics courses at Bellarmine for more than a decade, said he was always interested in “the whys of things.” When he began reading the works of C.S. Lewis he became fascinated by Lewis’ school of thought, ultimately deciding to continue his education focusing on philosophy and religion.
“Ethics is my favorite subject to teach, because the world needs ethics,” he said. “Part of the focus that Bellarmine has, particularly in the Philosophy department, is to engage the student’s minds with the great minds … I tell my class in the first lecture that they may think their grade comes when they finish the class, but it actually comes when they’re confronted with an ethical decision and how they handle it.”
Dr. Becker’s father was a Baptist minister and his family moved numerous times throughout his childhood, from South Carolina to upstate New York and Wisconsin. “One of the ways my father became part of the neighborhood was to become involved in the local volunteer fire department,” Dr. Becker said. “So, I got to see and know a lot of firefighters when I was in grade school.”
Dr. Becker returned to South Carolina to complete his undergraduate degree at Furman University, where he met his wife, Allison. He then obtained his master’s in divinity from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.
In the early 1990s, Dr. Becker and his family moved to Illinois, where he took a position as a pastor and music director at First Baptist Church of Riverton, while also working as a “church planter,” helping new churches open their doors. In his spare time, he followed in his father’s footsteps, volunteering as the chaplain for the Riverton Fire Department.
When his family moved to Louisville so that he could complete his doctoral work in philosophy at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, they settled in a house not far from the Worthington Fire Department. One day, he took his sons to visit and see the fire trucks.
“While I was there they asked what I did for work and I told them I was working on my Ph.D.,” Dr. Becker said. “They asked if I knew anything about chaplain work and I said, ‘Yeah, I’ve been a chaplain before.’ They had just lost their chaplain and asked if I would be interested, and I said yes. That was a Tuesday. I came in on a Thursday, we talked a bit and they gave me a chaplain vest.”
During his very first call, he had to intercept a father arriving at the scene where a teenager had lost control of his vehicle and swerved off the road, ultimately dying. As he comforted the father, the man spoke about what a great kid his son was and how he couldn’t believe what had happened.
“The only witness to the wreck was a teen friend who said they were at the red light together when the friend lost control and went over the embankment,” Dr. Becker said. “It didn’t take much talking to realize that the friend had likely challenged the teen to a drag race at the light and the teen took the curve too fast. The teen was a good kid with great parents, but [he] had 30 seconds of stupid when challenged to a race, and it killed him. I talk to a lot teens, including my own kids when they were teens, about ‘30 seconds of stupid’ being all it takes to make an irreversible mistake.”
After he had been chaplain for about six years, the Worthington Fire Department transitioned from volunteer to professional firefighters. The change meant there was less of a need for the chaplain on trauma scenes; instead, Dr. Becker serves as direct support for the firefighters. In addition to his work as a chaplain, Dr. Becker plays guitar for the worship band at Westport Road Baptist Church, where he also teaches a number of Sunday school classes.
“It takes a special kind of person to do that work,” he said of the fire crew. “Much of it is monotony and boredom interrupted by an incredible adrenaline rush. Then they meet people on the worst day of their lives. The emotional swings are the most unexpected and under-reported part of being a firefighter.”
On Sunday mornings, Dr. Becker leads a devotional and prayer time at two of the Worthington Fire Department locations. While most of the firefighters he works with are Christians, they are not all from the same denomination. He works hard to create a devotional that is relatable to everyone, while making it clear that participation is entirely voluntary. His devotions typically consist of saying The Lord’s Prayer followed by a short sermon focusing on one of the Psalms.
“Firefighters really are largely unsung. I talk to people about how firefighters meet people on the worst day of their lives, but nobody thinks about them unless there’s a parade or their house is on fire. They really are there 24 hours of the day. Our prayer is that the Lord watches over them while they watch over the town.”
Story and Photos by Emily Gahafer ’17