Retiring firefighters detail team effort, support

When a friend recently asked Dave Self if he wanted to go camping, he said he could because he had the weekend off from work.

The friend then reminded Self that he had just retired from the Seymour Fire Department.

“He goes, ‘You’re off the rest of your life,'” Self said.

On his last day on the job, Self looked at the weather forecast and learned it was going to rain the next couple of days. He knew that would prevent him from doing work for the mowing business he has on the side.

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Again, he wasn’t thinking about being retired and having plenty of time to get it done.

“I’m always waking up thinking I have to work, and I don’t,” the Brownstown man said.

For the past 28½ years, his life has revolved around the fire department calendar.

With retirement, that’s no longer the case. He now has a little more time for camping, mowing, riding his Harley-Davidson, taking trips with family and playing golf.

“I don’t have to worry about that anymore. I can just say, ‘Let’s go,'” he said. “Now, I can open up my schedule more.”

The same goes for John Thomas of rural Seymour, one of the department’s battalion chiefs who recently retired after 27½ years of service.

He said he no longer has to worry about finding someone to cover for him on a day off or a vacation.

“Pretty much, if I want to go someplace, I can go,” he said.

He, however, may be asked to work more at his part-time job with Foster Brothers LLC.

“I’m sure I could work every day if I want,” Thomas said.

For both men, the toughest part of retirement is no longer working alongside their fellow firefighters.

“A third of my life has been with that place. It’s just a good group of guys, and I feel fortunate that I got the privilege to work for them and with them. I’m going to miss them,” Self said.

“You spend 27 years in a place, it’s going to be tough to walk away from the guys and the job and everything,” Thomas said. “It has been a great career. Hopefully, we’ve helped a number of people and made Seymour a better place.”

While Self grew up wanting to become a firefighter, Thomas had plans for a law enforcement career.

Self was born in Lawrenceville, Illinois, and a couple of years later, his family moved to Seymour. After graduating from Seymour High School in 1981, he worked at three different places before starting at the fire department July 26, 1989.

He had a great-uncle and a cousin who were firefighters. A co-worker, Kurt Fenneberg, was chief of the Jackson-Washington Township Volunteer Fire Department and encouraged Self to pick up an application and go to tryouts.

“At the time, I was going through a divorce, and I was trying to get custody of my little girl, and it just didn’t even cross my mind,” Self said. “Then I just decided, ‘Hey, I’m going to do it.'”

He went through the tryout process at the department headquarters and Seymour High School stadium.

“I saw some of these ex-football players not making it, and I thought, ‘There’s no way I’m going to do this,'” Self said. “Well, somehow, I made it through it.”

Thomas is a native of Brazil, a city in Clay County. Following graduation from Brazil High School in 1981, he earned a bachelor’s degree in criminology from Indiana State University in nearby Terre Haute.

After getting married two years later, he managed the family’s Dairy Queen and worked on the family farm for about three years.

At the beginning of 1990, his wife, Patty, landed a job at Blue & Co. in Seymour, so the family made the move.

Thomas was working at Goecker Building Supplies in Seymour when he learned agility tests were coming up for the Seymour fire and police departments.

“I originally was looking at law enforcement,” he said. “I had a friend of mine that got on at the Terre Haute Fire Department and talked about how great it was.”

Thomas took both tests but received a call from the fire department first, so he went through a couple of interviews, accepted the job and started Aug. 26, 1990.

“I was tickled to death,” he said. “It’s a career job, and that’s what I was looking for.”

At the time both men started, there were only two fire stations in the city with eight people per shift for a total of 24. A third station opened in 2003, and there are now 13 people per shift at the stations and 40 total.

Self said another big change is the addition of dispatch. When he started, citizens called the fire department to report a fire or other emergency.

Then in the mid-1990s, firefighters started making medical runs, meaning more calls.

Equipment and firetrucks also have changed a lot over the years. Some of the equipment isn’t as heavy, and there have been some additions with technology.

Firefighters also have had to keep up with training and further education.

In 1994, Self and Thomas decided to take classes together at Ivy Tech Community College in Indianapolis to earn associate degrees in fire science.

“At that time, you talk about juggling a schedule,” Self said. “I was working two jobs, raising my daughter by myself and going to college. I was driving up there two or three days a week.”

The degree allowed both of them to move up the ladder at the fire department.

Self held ranks of sergeant and inspector but retired as a firefighter, while Thomas was sergeant, lieutenant and captain before retiring as a battalion chief.

“That’s why I went to school, to learn what I could from up there and bring back to the department,” Thomas said. “I wanted to be in charge. That was my personality. It’s what it has always been. I’ve always wanted to be that guy.”

Of all of the incidents he responded to over the years, Self said a fire on Highlawn Avenue in the early 1990s stands out.

Pat Papin found a man inside a burning home, and Self and Kevin Wehmiller helped pull the man to safety.

“It was a team effort,” Self said. “If somebody messes up or somebody doesn’t do their job, somebody gets hurt. It’s special because you’ve got to have everybody backing you.”

Thomas agreed the team effort is an important aspect of the job.

“I think one of the most rewarding things is when you have a scene and the guys you’ve worked with and trained and been with go in and do the job and do it well and do it right and safely,” he said. “My job is easy then. I don’t have to do much. I don’t have to say much.”

Some people see firefighters as heroes, but Thomas said he never thought of himself in that way.

“I had a job to do, and I did the job whenever I had to do it,” he said. “At times, we do things that aren’t expected of normal people, but we accepted that when we took the job. We knew we were going to do that. I think that’s rewarding to be able to go out and save somebody or save their house or whatever needs to be done.”

Both men said they decided nearly three years ago when they were going to retire.

Self said he wanted to have more time for his mowing business and to attend his children’s sporting events and spend time with his family.

“If it wasn’t for my mowing business, I would probably stay there, but I just wanted to develop it into something a little bigger and keep it going,” he said.

“I want to enjoy my grandkids, time with my wife and time with my kids,” he said. “I’ve got four kids. I want to see (two of) them play football. I want to see my grandkids and have fun — hunt, fish and play golf and ride my bike, me and wife go on vacation.”

Besides continuing to work for Foster Brothers, Thomas said he plans to travel, golf, fish, hunt and do things with his family.

“It’s something we’re looking forward to,” he said.

Both men said they appreciated having the support of their co-workers at the fire department.

Knowing he would get emotional if he told them goodbye in person, Self said he texted several of his fellow firefighters after his last day to thank them for everything.

“It’s very hard because these guys, you work with them, you hear their problems, you hear their tribulations, you hear their good things and the bad,” Self said. “It’s one big brotherhood. In the end, everybody does their job, and it’s the best job I’ve ever had.”

They also had strong family support.

“You’re there every third day,” Self said of working at the fire department. “I couldn’t have had this type of career if it weren’t for my and (his daughter) Courtney’s family watching Courtney every third day.”

At times, Thomas said his job prevented him from attending his children’s activities, but he was fortunate they understood.

“I couldn’t have done this job without Patty,” he said. “She has supported me the whole way.”

[sc:pullout-title pullout-title=”Self file” ][sc:pullout-text-begin]

Name: Dave Self

Age: 55

Hometown: Born in Lawrenceville, Illinois; his family moved to Seymour a couple of years later

Residence: Brownstown

Education: Seymour High School (1981); Ivy Tech Community College (associate degree in fire science)

Occupation: Recently retired after 28½ years with the Seymour Fire Department; owner of A&B Mowing

Family: Wife, Cathy Self; daughters, Courtney Cockerham and Lauren Self; sons, Andon Self and Branson Self

[sc:pullout-text-end][sc:pullout-title pullout-title=”Thomas file” ][sc:pullout-text-begin]

Name: John Thomas

Age: 54

Hometown: Brazil

Residence: Seymour

Education: Brazil High School (1981); Indiana State University (bachelor’s degree in criminology, 1985); Ivy Tech Community College (associate degree in fire science)

Occupation: Recently retired after 27½ years with the Seymour Fire Department; works for Foster Brothers LLC

Family: Wife, Patty Thomas; son, Luke Thomas; daughter, Nicole Thomas