Back on Nov. 1, 1971, when he arrived at River Forest's old fire station, 23 year old Pat Casey was one of three new probationary River Forest firefighters, eager to learn and fit in. In the intervening 34 years, the job, said Casey, "became a way of life." Over the years, Casey earned a reputation as what firefighters call, "a snot nose" firefighter?#34;someone who attacks a fire.
"He goes and gets the fire," said Lt. Bob Schoff, who came onto the department the same day as Casey. "And comes out with a blackened face and runny nose."
Now one of the two most senior firefighters on the department, Casey stood by a table laden with a cake and trays of food last Tuesday, as a crowd of people made up of River Forest and other firefighters and police, as well as family and friends gathered in the River Forest station house. With time earned, he has 35 years on the books, and it is a good time to call it a career, he said.
"It's been a long time," said Casey. "Seems like yesterday."
Though he seems loathe to acknowledge it, Casey admits that his body, while still strong and wiry, doesn't respond the way it used to. It's time to take it, if not easy, at least easier.
On Monday, Nov. 28, Fire Chief Jim Eggert formally informed the village board of Casey's retirement, setting in motion the process to hire Casey's replacement.
Asked what he'll miss most about the job, Casey says quickly and quietly, "The guys."
"The guys" clearly feel the same way.
According to those who've worked along side Casey, it's a textbook example of filling the vacancy, but not replacing the person.
"He's one of the best here," said Schoff. "There are some big boots to fill."
"He comes in to do the job," said Lt. Dave Witkin. "He's always been one to come in and help people. Teach guys at the fire scene the proper procedures."
Casey had less than three years on the job when former fire chief and current village trustee Russ Nummer joined the department in the summer of 1974. Nummer, who himself retired in 2003 after 30 years, said Casey was the type of firefighter "I'd like to have behind me going in."
"He was always one of the firefighters the other guys looked up to," said Nummer.
Asked about his reputation as a "snot nose," as a firefighter's firefighter, Casey replies, "It feels good. That's your job. That's the way it was."
As it happens, that's the way it would be one more time. As a reporter was winding up an interview with one of Casey's colleagues just after 1:30 last Tuesday afternoon, an alarm sounded in the station, and Casey immediately joined half a dozen men heading to the truck bay.
There's been a smoke alarm in a home in the 800 block of William Street, and two fire trucks rumble to life as the men grab their protective coats and clamber aboard. Casey, looking relaxed yet focused, grabs his coat from a compartment on the truck's side, pulls it on, and climbs up into the truck's cabin as the bay doors open.
It was not the first meal Pat Casey's had interrupted by a call to duty. But it was the last. Tomorrow he'll be a civilian once again. Fishing, or painting, or doing nothing at all.
For one more time, though, there was an important job to do.