Posted on Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2021 at 12:33 pm
Meet retired Lieutenant Hubert McKenzie. Like many firefighters hired at the Madison Fire Department, McKenzie worked in a different field prior to his employment with the City of Madison. He originally went to UW-Madison majoring in behavioral disabilities, but after getting out in the field, he realized it was not where his true passion lay.
While trying to find his true calling, he worked at UPS. One day, one of McKenzie’s friends suggested that they meet downtown at noon and turn in their applications for the City of Madison Fire Department. Unfortunately, his friend, who happened to work for the Dane County Sheriff’s Department, got a call and was not able to meet up, and never did get an application in. McKenzie, on the other hand, stayed true to his word, went downtown at noon, and put in his application to become a firefighter.
McKenzie reported to his first day at the recruit academy on February 4, 1980. His class was the largest in department history with a total of 33 new recruits. It was also a diverse group, including 7 Black recruits, 10 women, 1 Hispanic man, and 1 Native American recruit. Their class also marked the beginning of a new era at MFD, where all firefighters were required to have their own self-contained breathing apparatuses (SCBA) and have it with them on every fire call. Prior to that, rig facepieces were kept in a box in the center of the cab and were an option, not a rule.
Hubert McKenzie spent 25 years, 11 months, and 2 days on the job assigned to multiple stations during his tenure. While initially a firefighter at Firehouse #7, he was re-assigned to Firehouse #1 a few months later. There, in 1983, he became a rescue diver on the newly-formed Lake Rescue Team. He was promoted to paramedic in 1984 and maintained his paramedic license even after he was promoted yet again to lieutenant in 1988. He also spent time at Firehouse #8, #2, and #4.
McKenzie began and ended his career at Firehouse #7, so he finds that station to be the most endearing to him. While there, he had a large stone placed in front of the firehouse with the number “343” painted on it to honor the firefighters who lost their lives on September 11, 2001. The dedication remains outside Firehouse #7 to this day.
Over the years, McKenzie had the pleasure of training sixteen rookies, many of whom he still keeps in touch with. Some of his last rookies include current Lieutenants Mahlon Mitchell, Steve Redmond, and Lorenzo Hairston, as well as Chief’s Aide David Bridges and Firefighter Isaiah Goines, who had to leave his career early due to medical reasons. Our very own Fire Chief, Steven Davis, was a rookie of McKenzie’s as well. McKenzie jokingly mentioned that if you ask Chief Davis, he will say that, “McKenzie is the best thing since popped corn!”
Clearly, McKenzie kept a good sense of humor during this time at the firehouse, but when the calls came in, he and his crew took their job seriously and did it well. He enjoyed the instant gratification of seeing, firsthand, the impact he was able to make on each call, whether it was to put the fire out or assist a person with a diabetic emergency.
“Sure, the time off and wages were good, but helping and making a difference was most rewarding,” he said.
Community appreciation and support was huge. He recalls receiving a thank-you letter at the firehouse from a widow who lost her husband despite all the effort McKenzie’s crew made to save him. Little things, like that card of thanks, or cookies around the holidays, made him feel supported and appreciated by the community.
A variety of quotes, life lessons, and principles kept him motivated and helped shape his leadership throughout the years. One quote he took to heart is, “An incompetent person is the hardest person you will ever have to work for.” McKenzie tried never to be an incompetent lieutenant and made sure to know his job inside and out. Many of these quotes and life lessons have been passed down to subsequent generations of firefighters, many of whom who never even met him.
“I couldn’t have chosen a better career had I planned for 40 years,” he said, reflecting on his time at MFD.
In retirement, Hubert McKenzie owns a shop where he tinkers on his motorcycles and cars. He also has enjoyed riding his motorcycle and has traveled in 46 of the 48 contiguous United States, usually visiting Madison about four or five times a year. As he nears his 70th birthday this summer, McKenzie’s goal is to travel through the final two states, Washington and Oregon, Covid permitting. We all share the hope that he can make that trip this year!
This blog was authored by Apparatus Engineer Christopher Hahn.