Leotha Stanley via video conference
Leotha Stanley recently joined us over video chat
to reflect on his career at MFD and beyond.

Leotha Stanley enjoyed a 19-year career with the Madison Fire Department spanning from 1982 until his retirement in 2001. Prior to joining the department, Stanley was a student athlete at the University of Wisconsin and worked for the Urban League of Greater Madison after graduation. As a member of the Urban League, he was approached by Fire Chief Ed Durkin to help the department recruit a more diverse workforce. After a few years, he gave in to Chief Durkin’s requests and joined the department himself—a decision he now confirms was a great move.   

Like most who join the fire service, Stanley did not really know what he was getting into. He recalls some moments of his training academy that left him wondering if he made the right decision. But as he made it to the stations and started responding to calls, he realized this was a great career for him. He quickly realized he could make a difference in the community. Stanley enjoyed providing stability and the chance to make a difference to the community he lived in. 

Leotha Stanley started his career as a firefighter at Station #1. He was part of the “star” class, a name given to them because all the members of his class had college degrees and most played some sports in college. After a short stay at #1, Stanley was moved to Station #7, where he stayed for a few years. He then joined the Community Education Division and promoted safety initiatives within the community. Later, he came back to the stations and became a paramedic. He worked at various stations, though he spent most of his career at Station #7.

While his experiences as a firefighter, community educator, and paramedic differed, there are a few calls that stand out in his mind. He recalls helping a patient that was a victim of a pipe bomb incident, as well as searching for a victim in a prominent east-side establishment.

Blocks of butter on fire in 1991
A snapshot from the famous "Butter Fire" of 1991

Stanley also played a large part in fighting the famous “Butter Fire” on the east side of Madison in 1991. The fire ripped through a large warehouse that stored butter and other food products. He was playing a music gig at the time of the fire and was called in to work to battle that blaze for 72 hours.

“Rivers of butter do exist,” he said, reflecting on the streams of butter and floating cans of ham that were as high as the wheel wells of the fire trucks – a vivid memory he will always have.

There are other experiences he’ll carry with him forever: Looking on to Camp Randall from the top of Station #4, working as a paramedic at concerts and football games, and interacting with the community as a member of MFD. Of course, he will also remember the way cooks like Mike Fuss could take $20 for the day and make feasts for the crew.

There were some hard-to-forget calls. Stanley vividly recalls the feeling of helping someone with breathing issues or giving another patient medication to bring them out of a diabetic coma. He loved seeing that the job he was doing directly helped someone else! It really brought him a sense of fulfillment, and his love for helping people continued to fuel his passion for the fire department. He speaks highly of the relationships he created with his co-workers and the community. Crew members became family and really helped each other, both on and off the job.

Leotha Stanley by a piano
Photo courtesy: leestanley.com

Stanley retired after 19 years of service with the MFD to pursue a career in music. It was a difficult decision, but with a little inspiration from the film Mr. Holland’s Opus, he made the move. Since then, he’s written two children’s books about music and a play for children called Roarrr. He composed music for the Madison Symphony Orchestra, performed at the Governor’s Mansion, and has served as the Music Director for Mt. Zion Baptist Church.

“The dream is in the journey,” he says. He continues to give back to the community by tutoring UW athletes, volunteering around the community, and working for the Urban League. 

“I would not change a thing,” he emphatically stated. The people, experiences, and opportunities he had with Madison Fire and his experiences in retirement have molded a fulfilling and happy life.

You can find him performing his music around the city, or if he’s not performing, you’ll find him at Coppertop Restaurant having a cup of coffee and sharing stories. 

This blog was authored by Firefighter Aaron Zamzow.

This content is free for use with credit to the City of Madison - Fire and a link back to the original post.