Firefighters shared stories, traded friendly barbs and fought back tears at a retirement party for Lodi Fire Chief Kevin Donnelly on Thursday morning. Coworkers gathered to wish Donnelly luck, offer a going-away present and thank him for his two decades of service with the department. A gathering of about 20 firefighters, administrators and battalion chiefs sat in a circle around Donnelly for the brief ceremony. Flashing a wide smile, Donnelly joked that the assembly had something more sinister in store for him than just thank-yous.
"Is this a roast?" Donnelly asked, referring to an event where a person is the subject of insults and outlandish stories.
But while there were some lighthearted jokes passed back and forth between Donnelly and the group, the atmosphere was one of thoughtful reflection and gratitude. Engineer Paul Alvarez presented Donnelly with his retirement gift, a white fire helmet with "Fire Chief" written across it and a wooden ax to rest it on. The gift, purchased with funds raised by Donnelly's coworkers, was contained in a plain brown box without wrapping paper — a presentation that led to Alvarez getting gently harassed by the audience.
"I don't wrap," Alvarez said.
Division Chief Aimee Murry has worked with Donnelly for the past 16 years. Donnelly was her captain when she was a firefighter. When major fires were breaking out in Malibu in the mid-1990s, Donnelly, Murry and an engineer drove down to the area to help battle the blazes. Donnelly sang songs with Murry to help pass the time during the 8-hour, non-air-conditioned drive, she said.
"We were helping keep each other awake and sang a lot of country, even if we didn't know all the words," she said. "People on the freeway were staring at me because I was alone in the open-air cab in the back and it looked like I was just shouting to myself."
Despite playful comments from fellow firefighters, the avid San Francisco Giants fan said he wouldn't start rooting for the Seattle Mariners when he moved to Washington.
"I don't like American League baseball," he said. "I'll always be a Giants fan."
While the memories of Donnelly will last, his experience will be missed by the department, said Battalion Chief Ron Penix.
"Whenever you have someone at any level retire, the experience and expertise they have is gone," he said.
Penix said he was encouraging the younger firefighters to take a moment to talk with Donnelly and get insight from him while they still had the chance.
"Once it's gone, it's gone," he said.
Donnelly wasn't always on track to be a firefighter. The Michigan native moved West and went to high school in San Jose before entering the wine industry. He worked at cellars in Santa Rosa, repairing bottling machinery and grape crushers before moving to Santa Cruz to work in a food processing plant. It wasn't until after his 30th birthday that Donnelly began his firefighting career as a volunteer in Felton.
He soon found himself driving up and down the state taking tests at fire departments, looking to find one to join. In 1981, he started service with Lodi Fire and rose through the ranks. He was appointed interim chief in June 2009. Donnelly was named to the position full-time last January.
He is retiring from Lodi's department to be the fire chief in Redmond, Wash. He will start May 15. His last day with Lodi Fire is May 1. Murry said City Manager Rad Bartlam would recommend Ron Heberle for the interim chief's position during Wednesday's City Council meeting.
After the ceremony, Donnelly talked with the group about his search for a condominium in Washington that would be big enough for his wife, Cathy, and their one-year-old Great Dane. The dog weighs more than 100 pounds, and Donnelly said he was trying to find ways get the dog to exercise and potty train it in the smaller space.
"Let her go in the tub," Alvarez said, drawing laughter and disgust from the audience.
Donnelly said he hopes he's leaving the department in better shape than when he started. He added that while the fire department faces financial cutbacks and station brownouts, the problems are not insurmountable, and he commended the crew for its dedication.
"I'm very proud of all of you and to have been a part of this department," he said. "You have all been part of my family for the last 20 years."
Contact reporter Jordan Guinn at email@example.com.