The Parting Glass
24 November 2008
I was always the awkward kid. The one who read too much and played too little; not strong, not brave, not confident. I was that kid well into my teens and if you watch me now, you’ll still see it occasionally. I don’t quite know how, therefore, I decided to be a firefighter: full-time for a few years, a volly for a few more, and now getting lost in the woods on a regular basis.
Maybe blame my roommate Myles, who talked me into taking an EMT class, or the instructor of that class, the incomparable Deena Thomas (nee Stout). Maybe blame Bud Rotroff, who made clear from the first Fire Science class I took with him that this was where serious people lived. But certainly, a great share of the blame can be laid on Battalion Chief Phil Rounds, who commanded respect for the University Fire Department from the first moment he entered a room. Ben Fleagle has written it already, all I want to do is lend my own voice to talking about a great guy I knew, who passed away a few days ago.
Anybody who ever met Phil couldn’t help but respect him, laugh with him, and for we few, we happy few, we band of brothers and sisters who worked for him, we couldn’t help but be devoted to him. I’m pretty sure that my time on A-Shift was only about six months, but like many things that happen to you in your early twenties, it lasted much longer than that. A lot of fortune was good then, besides working for Phil and Jerry Philips: I met Jason Buist, Alan Rook, Josh Dronkers, Dave Shechter, Dan Miotke, Tim Mahon, Josh Zwart, Forrest Kuiper, and Adam Peterson. We did all those kinds of things like working together, fighting with each other, and drinking beer. Phil Rounds was the Battalion Chief, and Jerry Philips was the Captain, and we were firefighters at the University Fire Department.
Chief Edie Curry, another person I owe blame to for making me a firefighter, had one of the best Phil stories. She asked him to stand in as the representative of UAF & UFD at a conference held by FEMA at UC Berkeley to secure a big grant for disaster preparedness. With big names like that, and with us as a small school and a small (but mighty) fire department, it would have been easy to marginalize us. But not with Phil pleading the case. As Chief Curry told the story, he had no slides, no outline, no script. But anyone who knew Phil can guess how it ends: with the audience eating out of his hand. He stepped up on stage and flipped on the overhead projector, the screen blank. A bright white square lit up the auditorium full of emergency management professionals from across the country. Phil Rounds, never at a loss for an opening line, said: “This is what our campus looks like nine months out of the year.” After that, everybody was on his side. Thanks to Phil’s presentation and Chief Curry’s tremendous preparation, UAF got the grant.
Perhaps Chief Rounds was your Firefighter I instructor, or perhaps you worked with him at UFD, or perhaps you knew him through the National Fire Academy classes he taught all across Alaska. However it happened, his enthusiasm for the fire service, and for the firefighters he led, was unmistakable. He had a great sense of humor, a superb commitment to the fire service, and unending patience with the hotheads who worked for him. I don’t know much about Chief Rounds before he came to UFD, except that he was a firefighter for the Air Force at Miramar, and then at Eielson AFB. I know that I asked him once what caused him to work someplace where he was constantly dealing with new people, training them up only to see them leave. He replied that he felt it helped keep him young, but I’m not sure that was the real reason. It helped, I don’t doubt that for a moment. But I think that maybe he knew we needed him to keep us pointed in the right direction. He was modest, at least sometimes, and for every time he could look at you and with that look get you to reconsider the half-assed job you were about to do, he and Jerry also had a great stand-up routine at the 8 o’clock briefing.
I have to confess that I haven’t attended any UFD reunion picnics, and start to feel a little old when I look at pictures of people I knew then (you know who you are). I have sent messages to several of my former coworkers in the last few hours, though, and I hope to see at least one of them soon. I haven’t worn turnouts in a year or two. But I will always think about the time that I went from being the awkward kid to somebody who could make entry on a fire, drive an engine on dark and icy roads, and run a code when it really got hairy. And I know that I’m one of many when I say that Chief Rounds made that possible. He let us know that we weren’t the awkward kids anymore, not if we worked hard, kept our heads up, and trusted each other.
I wish I could be in Fairbanks for the memorial service. I will count myself lucky if I can talk to Buist or Chief Curry sometime this week, and I offer my deepest condolences to Bess and her family, and to the family at UFD. I’m not a smoke eater or a leatherhead, except by the grace of those I know who are, but I am someone who was proud to roll with University Fire Department for a time.
And I join Captain Fleagle in raising the parting glass to someone we all loved: Phil Rounds.