Stanley: Remembering Chief Walsh, in his own words
BY BRIAN STANLEY Life of Brianemail@example.com September 28, 2013 7:52PM
Retired Joliet Fire Chief Larry Walsh in October 2012 | File Photo
Updated: October 30, 2013 6:42AM
Several current and retired Joliet firefighters called me after retired Fire Chief Larry M. Walsh died Wednesday at age 77. All of them offered examples of the impact he made while running the department from 1991 to 1998 and his dedication to fire service.
But in what likely is the final example of setting things up ahead of time to help “his guys,” I already had a good source to recall Walsh’s firefighting experience — Walsh himself.
While he was battling cancer, the retired chief presented his autobiography at a luncheon I attended last fall and offered such a wealth of tales that I felt compelled to keep my notes.
When Walsh left Argonne National Laboratory in 1968, he was asked by a psychiatrist he knew why he was taking less money to join the Joliet Fire Department. His friends might’ve said he was crazy, but the psychiatrist accepted his answer of supporting his family with a city job — and didn’t have him committed.
Walsh recalled that back then, much of the fire equipment and some of the stations weren’t in the best of shape. He said when they washed the second floor at old Station 5 on Hickory Street water would run down onto the ground floor.
“The old ambulances were in bad shape,” he said. “I remember one trip to the hospital where it was raining and snowing. I had to use more towels to put in the fender walls to keep the patient dry than to take care of him.”
After being promoted to lieutenant in 1978, Walsh got a state grant to buy the first modular ambulances and got the city government to agree to run them 24 hours a day.
On his days off, Walsh started working at Joliet Junior College, where he founded its fire science program.
Walsh became deputy fire chief in 1979 and ran the department as acting chief for most of 1981 before budget cuts eliminated the deputy chief’s position and returned him to lieutenant.
Ten years later, Walsh became chief when the city manager asked him for a five-year-plan to improve the department.
“I said, ‘After you hire me, I’ll be happy to share it with you,’” Walsh said.
As chief, he shifted training for new firefighters from downstate academies to the department itself.
For someone dedicated to all things Joliet, Walsh was a neighborly chief. Every Friday at 3:30 p.m., he headed to Shorewood to have coffee with Plainfield Fire Chief John Eichelberger, the late East Joliet Fire Chief Bob Klink and the late Troy Fire Chief Kerry Sheridan.
“I went home (from one of those meetings in 1991) got out of the car and looked up. I said, ‘Oh my God.’ The sky was black and the ice rink was on fire,” Walsh said.
The blaze destroyed the skating rink, but the rest of the Inwood center was spared after Walsh used engines to drain the nearby swimming pool.
Walsh’s guys respected his efforts so much he was named the Exchange Club’s Firefighter of the Year in 1992, a rarity for the fire chief.
“You know, I got a lot of credit for things I didn’t do. The young men under me stepped up and formed new teams,” he said.
Walsh is credited with developing the fire department’s Combined Area Rescue Team, its Special Operations Squad and the Honor Guard. He gave credit for another specialized operation to state casino regulation.
Walsh had “an officer who was bound and determined to have” another team around the same time that Harrah’s Casino needed its riverboat checked for safety requirements.
Instead of sending the boat down the river to lose revenue for weeks, the casino manager met with Walsh about a more cost-effective way to have the inspection done right in the river basin.
“He said, ‘well, I guess I bought a dive team,’” Walsh said.
“I wasn’t always the most popular guy in the department. I had too many ideas,” he summarized. “But when push came to shove, I had guys who stepped up.”
It seems Chief Walsh was leading by example there.