My chief is dying. The tubes and wires have been removed, the do-not-resuscitate order is in place and he is in a deep sleep — oblivious to the heartache growing in those around him. His has been a long, arduous journey, drawn to a close after a fall caused a massive bleed in his brain.
As I stood by his hospital bed and watched his loud, slow breathing, I thought about the first time I met Paul “Bud” Boecker. It was at the Lisle (Ill.) Volunteer Fire Department station, just after he arrived from the neighboring town of Naperville. He was only the second full-time fire chief hired by Lisle. (The first chief only lasted six months.) The two departments were rivals, in some ways — Boecker once called Lisle a “Mickey Mouse department.” Now here he was, their fire chief.
Slowly, this hearty giant of a man worked his way into the Lisle fire department, hiring the first full-time firefighters, ordering new equipment, changing rules one by one, and eventually turning the department into the first ISO Class 1–rated fire district in the United States.
While I never served in Boecker’s fire department, my father and brothers did. He was a part of our family, and we were part of his. He; his wife, Sonja; and sons, Paul III and A.J., wove their way into the hearts and lives of the families in the department. From weddings, graduations and funerals to holiday events and other celebrations, the big guy from Naperville truly became the chief of Lisle — and we always called him “Chief.”
Boecker was an innovator, a man before his time. He created “Keep the Wreaths Red” at Christmas and encouraged his firefighters to specialize and continue their education. The department thrived, and every national conference I went to seemed to have someone from the now Lisle-Woodridge Fire Protection District on the program or teaching a class. Boecker himself emceed the’ presidential celebrations for many years. He taught at the National Fire Academy and introduced the concept of “Think Big” for disasters. And in 2004, Boecker won the Congressional Fire Services Institute’s prestigious Mason Lankford Award.
In our small town of Lisle, Chief Boecker was the cigar-chomping guy in the white turnout coat and helmet who truly cared about the citizens, yet was savvy with politicians. Everyone has a story about the chief — because he touched so many lives — from the time he talked a suicidal young man down from the high tension wires to the day he took the new aerial out of district to cheer-up a depressed friend.
But he was my chief in a different way. Boecker would invite me to ride in his car to the scene of a fire, lights and sirens blaring. He told me in the early ‘70s, when I tried to volunteer for the fire department, told me to “go home and have babies.” But 15 years later, he introduced me to the editor of Fire Chief that resulted in my first job with the magazine. He has been my mentor and my friend, and enjoyed the title of my “Favorite Fire Chief.”
Boecker was an organizer and a motivator. He left four large envelopes, each labeled “After my death,” with his own funeral arrangements. After years of organizing and developing SOPs for firefighters’ funerals, Boecker has preplanned his own.
Last night, I watched my chief in his deep slumber. I thanked him for his influence on my life and on my family and remembered Matthew 25:21: “Well done, my good and faithful servant. … Come and share your Master’s happiness.”