This week, the City of Ardmore recognized former firefighter Darin Butler for his 30-year career at the Ardmore Fire department, the longest tenure in AFD history dating back to 1895.
Inside a hangar lined with brushed-chrome beauties, classic bikes and an assortment of high-powered toys, an eccentric mechanical prodigy with a penchant for saving lives nods to the guitar riffs blaring from his stereo, deftly tuning the gears and pistons of a machine that will make him fly.
Sadly, an Iron Man reboot/Infinity War sequel isn’t currently being filmed in Ardmore.
Instead, it’s just a Wednesday for the real-life Tony Stark, a leader born and raised in Ardmore, whose career can be measured in lives saved and fires fought.
The real-life hero, Darin Butler, is a former firefighter and Ardmore lifer. He's a man of God, art and science.
He drums and plays bass in three separate worship bands and, in between the services, bangs out drum solos in his classic rock band. He built his first engine as a teenager, earning an apprenticeship at a since-closed auto manufacturer in Ardmore.
"It just came naturally to me," Butler said. "I could look at something and see how it worked. It's just the way my mind worked."
In his late teens and twenties, Butler was a sponsored flat track bike racer, a sport that requires riders to throw their bodies sideways, hovering centimeters above the track as they whip around tight ovals, bumping and skidding beside five other racers. After he hung up his racing boots, he rode broncos bareback in the rodeo for a stint but found he preferred straddling a machine that he built by hand.
“I didn’t take to it,” he said. “That dirt hurt.”
And then if his life wasn’t interesting enough for Butler, at 22, he became an Ardmore hero, saving lives, and charging into flames longer than any man woman or Dalmatian that’s served since the Ardmore Fire Department was founded in 1895.
It’s no surprise Butler retired and in two years became a lauded airplane mechanic, cited in national magazines for his work on propeller planes.
And when he’s not drumming or flying one of his two timeless flying machines, Butler works full-time inspecting planes for a living in one of the two hangars he built.
But through all the Marvel hero resume that is the first 52 years of his life, fighting fires in Ardmore was always Butler’s calling.
Butler said when he was four years old at a career day, all his buddies and classmates shouted out the cool jobs they dreamed of. Astronauts, detectives, pro ball players.
“Now I don’t remember this personally, it’s been a long time, but a lifelong buddy told me one day after I joined the department that I was the only one of us that accomplished their dream,” Butler said.
And while he said the plaque is a big honor, what Butler believes he gained the most in his 30-year career was the impact he made, and seeing those parents and children of the families he saved walk up years later and shake his hand.
“Life is priceless,” Butler said. “I got to help people, really make an impact for 30 years, It’s the best job in the world, I can’t say it enough. It really is. When you save a life, or pull a child to safety, it’s indescribable.”
But he said the dark days stay with him, too. The trauma of the job, busting through charred doors locked from the inside to find tiny lifeless bodies are the ones that he said still stay with him.
But he also remembers the lives he saved. The slim margins. The glance that resulted in him seeing a car parked on the tracks as a train barreled towards a passed-out driver’s certain death.
“If i had gotten their 20 seconds later, If i had taken a different road, someone’s daughter wouldn’t be breathing today,” Butler said. “It’s God. So many times I’ve just been led to the right place and the right time. God wanted me to be there.”
From age 22 to 52, Butler saw himself and the department change. The men he looked up to, the old guard, had left, retiring one by one.
“All of the sudden, I looked around and I was the old guy,” Butler said. “But that’s the beauty of it. You get to pass on that knowledge, like the men who taught me.”
Butler made an impression in his time, as both a fire fighter, shift commander and as the resident mechanic.
“If anything was broken in the station, we’d all give it a shot,” JD Spohn said of his time as a firefighter in Ardmore. “Once we gave up, Darin would always come in with some weird, specific tool and get that thing humming.”
In 2016, Butler left his twin-sized bed at the station for good, returning home to his wife of 34 years.
“It was strange,” he said. “I missed that firm little mattress. I bought one and put it in the hangar. I sleep like a baby on it.”
He said after 30 years it was time, but it wasn't until 2016 when he learned he'd achieved history.
Earlier this year, Ardmore City Manager and former Ardmore Fire Chief JD Spohn said he got a call.
The current chief, Cary Williamson, sifted through 123 years of Ardmore fire records. They found Butler had done something never before done in Ardmore.
“When I heard about it, I was shocked, to be honest,” Spohn said. “Serving in the department for 30 years, I knew that was special. But I didn’t realize just how special. We had to do something. The longest run since 1895, that’s no small thing.”
“He’s really remarkable, he just knows how things work and how to solve problems,” Spohn added. “But it’s his work ethic that I admire the most. If there was a job that needed to be done, he would do it,”