At their first reunion, alumni who volunteered with the College Township Fire Department recall a very different extracurricular activity
David J. Snell '73 summed it up best: "Kenyon and the College Township Volunteer Fire Department changed my life."
Kenyon, of course. Most alumni look back to the College as a place where they found friends, mentors, ideals, glimmerings of a career, and a first adult stance--emotional and moral no less than intellectual--that would shape the way they took on life and the world.
But since the early 1970s, some Kenyon students have found those same shaping influences in the fire department, where they volunteered as full-fledged members beside older community residents, commiting themselves to intensive training and the tough, sometimes dangerous work of fire and ambulance runs, and getting through it all with the help of a deep, humor-tinged brand of camaraderie.
About two dozen of the fire-department alumni returned to Gambier last September for a first-ever reunion. From Snell's generation of the 1970s to graduates of the mid and late 1990s, the alumni gathered at the fire station on East Brooklyn Street and reminisced about the experiences that made their college years different: the Sunday-morning inspections, the racing out of class or leaping out of bed when their pager went off, the grass fires and house fires, the car wrecks and coronaries, not to mention the mouse in the venison chili, and the daring rescue of a TV set, and the legendary pop machine filled with bottles of beer.
Not to mention, either, the profoundly grounding experiences: saving a life, saving a home, witnessing death and loss, and learning to take the good-natured ribbing of another volunteer, an older guy, who says, "Thank goodness someone is giving you a real education; what were you going to do with a philosophy degree, talk to trees?"--the jibe of someone you might once have dismissed as a townie but whom you now regard as a kind of pal, a kind of brother.
"We got so much more out of it than we gave," says Jay Johannigman '79, a trauma surgeon at University Hospital in Cincinnati who helped promote the reunion. "We saw a side of Kenyon that other students didn't; we met the townspeople. When I started out with the department, I liked the excitement and the challenge. But it became much more."
The "much more" owes a lot to L. Hobart "Hobe" Brown, a Cooper Energy Services manager (now retired) who was chief of the department for more than twenty-five years. "He made a department out of farmers, townspeople, Ph.D.s, and nineteen-year-old college students," says Johannigman. "He made the mix work."
The other key leader was, and is, one of those Ph.D.s: Charles E. Rice, professor emeritus of psychology, who joined the department in 1970 and who was the assistant chief from 1971 into the early nineties. Rice plays the unofficial role of fire-department student advisor, recruiter, mother hen, wise uncle, and alumni leader"--the glue that holds everything together," as Johannigman puts it.
"Chuck taught us dedication, discipline, and the fundamental lesson of medicine: `Take care of the patient,'" Johannigman continues. "At a fire, Chuck always had his eye on us, to make sure we were doing everything right but also to look out for us. Hobe and Chuck wanted to make sure we were safe."
Rice, who organized the reunion and emceed the reunion dinner on Saturday, September 30, notes that for many of the alumni, the fire department was not today's modern facility but the cramped building on Scott Lane that now houses Kenyon's security office. "We had a tanker, a pumper, a grass-fire vehicle, and a fifties-vintage ambulance, which was a converted Cadillac hearse."
The furnishings also included the converted pop machine, a big cooler-style dispenser recalled with fondness by many alumni, although Rice avers that only local residents, not students, made use of this convenience. Be that as it may, some of the alumni remembered the machine as the only place to get beer in Knox County on a Sunday, and for just a quarter a bottle.
The first student in the department, as far as anyone can recall, was John R. Adkins, a member of the Class of 1966 who left the College after a party-laden freshman year, spent four years as a medic in the U.S. Air Force, and then returned to complete his studies from 1967 to 1970. Adkins, a lawyer who has served since 1990 as the municipal court judge in his hometown of Circleville, Ohio, remembers a good many grass fires, caused by trains that threw off diesel embers. He was also one of the firefighters who responded, in vain, to the gargantuan creosote fire that destroyed the old pole yard, the pile of telephone poles that were stored at the bottom of the hill, south of Wertheimer Fieldhouse.
At that time, the department's rescue squad was "a race, scoop up, and race to the hospital" organization, says Adkins. Most local departments didn't even have the benefit of a converted hearse: they relied on real hearses, dispatched by the funeral homes when a medical emergency arose. The funeral homes grew increasingly uncomfortable with the arrangement"--it was bad for the victims and bad for business, and it posed a liability problem," according to Rice. He explains that the evolution of modern volunteer emergency services began in 1971, when funeral homes nationally put a stop to the practice of using hearses for emergency runs.
It was during the seventies that students became a regular fixture in the College Township Fire Department. The numbers have always varied, with one or two students per class generally serving at a given time, says Rice. Over the years, sixty students have become members of the department, although three either didn't serve or didn't complete their training and two left Kenyon before graduation for financial reasons, according to Rice. At present, eleven students are serving or are in training.
Many of the tales at the reunion, and much of the laughter, came from that first generation of the 1970s, when, in addition to Snell, the department included Edward "Mel" Otten '73, Michael R. Pour '73, Homer R. Richards '74, and F. Jay Andress III '75, among others. All served long before a 911 system was instituted in Knox County, and their memory of the department is indelibly marked by the call-letters KIZ-484, used in radio transmissions by the College Township station, as in "KIZ-484, respond, you have a squad run . . ."
Chatting outside the truck bays at the station, and then over dinner inside, they recalled the gratitude of farmers whose barns they had saved and of elderly people who relied on the department for rides to the doctor. Several remembered the time when the Mount Vernon mayor's house caught fire and the city fire department was understaffed, so that the College Township volunteers had to respond, causing some embarrassment in the city.
Andress and Richards told about the football Saturday when they were on stand-by duty with the ambulance, and the loudspeaker suddenly summoned them because a man had collapsed behind the stands. "The guy was on the ground and his wife was kneeling by him, and Chuck Rice was pushing through the crowd," said Richards. "There was also a man there who said, smugly, `I'm a doctor; this man is dead.' But Chuck started CPR anyway, and as soon as we pulled the ambulance up, he said, `Go!'
"Well, we got him into the ambulance, and Chuck and Jay jumped in, and I pulled out at forty-five miles per hour, cutting right through the crowded parking lot, scattering gravel and throwing Chuck and Jay around in the back. Off we went to the hospital.
"When we got back, the whole town was in an uproar, because we had thrown a dead guy in the ambulance and endangered life and limb by speeding through a crowd. We looked at each other and told people, `That man is still alive.' We'd saved him. I sometimes wonder what kind of a doctor it was who pronounced him dead. Maybe a doctor of music." (Rice still has a letter from Kenyon president William G. Caples '30 thanking the ambulance unit for their work that day.)
Otten, who had served as a U.S. Army medic in Vietnam before coming to Kenyon, acknowledges that when a fire broke out in Caples Residence, it was he who ran, without safety gear, into the smoke-filled halls, heard voices coming from behind a door, banged on it without getting a reponse, and then broke it down, to find a fire burning--and a TV set going. Beyond going down in the annals as the time when "Mel saved the TV set," the event prompted the students in the fire department to begin training their classmates in the use of fire extinguishers.
Perhaps because the stress of the job demands a release, perhaps because a volunteer fire outfit is not so different, in some ways, from a dormitory full of college boys, there have been plenty of pranks over the years. One, again from the seventies, featured the mouse that had been raiding the station candy machine until a trap cut short its luck. During a regular Tuesday night meeting at the station, one of the community members was introducing the students to venison chili. They were taking their first tentative bites when somebody lifted the mouse out of a bowl, as if it had been there all along, and smiled, saying, "This must be the secret ingredient." More than one student rushed outside.
The moments of comedy only underscore the seriousness of the commitment. There is, first of all, the training, which grows ever more time-consuming and technical--and which every student, like every other volunteer, must complete. During the early 1970s, each volunteer took a six-hour first-aid course and a firefighting course of twenty to twenty-four hours, according to Rice. Today the basic emergency-medical-technician course is 148 hours, and the volunteers must pass a national examination. (Some students undertake this training during the summer.) The basic fire-training course is seventy-eight hours.
Every volunteer is required to come to the Tuesday meetings, which last from 7:00 p.m. until 10:00 or 11:00 and often involve additional training. And there are the Sunday inspections, from 9:00 a.m. to 12:00 noon, during which every vehicle, and every one of the more than two hundred pieces of equipment per vehicle, must be checked. The fringe benefit is a hearty breakfast, although that also entails doing dishes and mopping floors.
Like the other volunteers, the students carry pagers wherever they go. "It's like a long leash that we all wear," says Rice. "It jerks us back to the station."
The students deal with the full range of medical emergencies, including heart attacks, strokes, seizures, and traffic accidents. They're involved in every aspect of firefighting. If the situation calls for the firefighters to enter a burning building, the students do it, too.
"This is totally different from a normal extracurricular activity," says Rice. "This is the ultimate challenge of whether you can operate under stress and whether you can work well in an organization. The costs and benefits are pretty much the ultimate."
The experience builds self-confidence. "I believe students come in with the confidence that they can do the academic work," Rice notes. "But this is a step beyond that. Can you take something you've learned and apply it in a meaningful way?"
Why do they do it? Some, like Adkins and Otten, had come to Kenyon with skills they knew would be useful, along with maturity that endowed them with a service ethic, leadership ability, and the discipline to handle the time commitment. (Both Adkins and Otten held multiple jobs on campus in addition to pursuing their studies and volunteering with the department.)
Many students are interested in medical careers and see the fire department as valuable experience as well as a test to see whether they can handle the injuries and suffering. "They're exposed right up front to things many physicians are never exposed to," says Rice.
Others are drawn in by friends, or by chance. Susan L. Thompson '83 discovered the department literally by accident. Early in the fall of her first year, she was racing on her bicycle to get to soccer practice when she took a turn too fast, went flying, and found herself stunned on the ground, then tended to by some student volunteers who had responded to the emergency call. She became friendly with a circle of volunteers, including Randolph B. Gorman '81, became a volunteer herself, and later became Susan Thompson-Gorman when she and Randy married.
Thompson-Gorman was the first female student to join the department (several of the local volunteers' wives had already become members themselves). "The relationships with the town members of the department were not as close for women students," she recalls. "There was some muttering along the lines of, `What's this girl doing here?'" But any initial doubts evaporated. "I loved it," says Thompson-Gorman. "I have very, very fond memories of all the people I worked with. It gave me a really good foundation in learning how to help people and how to keep my head in very stressful situations."
Thompson-Gorman is one of the many fire-department alumni who went on to careers in medicine or health-related fields. (See the accompanying story, "Life after KIZ-484.") She earned a Ph.D. in physiology from the Johns Hopkins University School of Hygiene and Public Health, did post-doctoral research in cardiology at Johns Hopkins, and now teaches biology at Villa Julie College in Stevenson, Maryland. Her husband, Randy, is an anesthesiologist at the Greater Baltimore Medical Center.
Amie R. Graves '91 (now Amie Swope) was the only female student in the department for a number of years, but she says she felt accepted from the outset. "I'm from a small town, Wakeman, Ohio, where my father was the assistant chief at the volunteer fire department and my grandfather was chief. The department here was of incalculable value to me. I often felt I fit in more at the station than I did with other students on campus."
The bonds that the students forge with community residents is one of the things they value most. "Volunteer firemen are the same everywhere, very good people, down to earth," says Randy Gorman. "The students, the townspeople, the farmers--we all got along together. We as students were the newcomers, so we looked up to them; we didn't put on airs. I really missed it when I left."
By Rice's rough count, fifteen of the fifty-seven students who trained and served with the department went on to practice medicine. Otten, for example, is a professor of emergency medicine and pediatrics and director of the division of toxicology at the University of Cincinnati, and he volunteers as medical director for a number of emergency and relief organizations. Snell, who came to Kenyon intending to be a lawyer, really did see his life change as a result of the College and the department--he went on to practice emergency medicine, moved to anesthesiology, and now serves as vice president for medical affairs of an Internet company called MyDrugRep.com.
Of those who pursued other fields, some continued to volunteer with fire departments and rescue squads. A.J. House '80, a farmer in Payson, Illinois, still serves with a small volunteer department. Adkins, the judge, helped start the emergency-medical service unit in Circleville and served for many years on Ohio's state emergency services board.
And then there is David P. Diggdon '88, who practiced law in Seattle, Washington, from 1992 until this January, when he became a full-time firefighter for the city of Everett, Washington. "Since my first exposure to the fire service with the College Township Volunteer Fire Department," he recently wrote Rice, "I have known that being a firefighter is my only true calling."
Diggdon may be unusual, but it's probably fair to say that all of the alumni see the department as having played a role in who they became, what they achieved, and what they value in life.
"Thank goodness someone is giving you a real education; what are you going to do with a philosophy degree, talk to trees?" Those memorable words were spoken to Brian Hsiang '95, who couldn't make the reunion but who, like many others, wrote Chuck Rice a note full of affection and anecdotes. The anti-philosophical philosopher was Bob Hooper, Kenyon's assistant director of security and safety, and a fellow volunteer with Hsiang.
"Not that I don't talk to trees," wrote Hsiang, who currently works on a farm in Vermont, "but I'm grateful for all the knowledge and wisdom." He ended, writing: "Two of my friends just joined the local volunteer fire department. They've got a pool table, so I may just do the same."
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