"From the moment I wake up to the next morning when I come home, I enjoy every minute.Whether it be an emergency medical call, a high-rise, a chemical spill, there's always something new, something a little different."

Spring 1998

Eating Smoke
He came to Wabash to "become a rich and independent businessman," but he found his calling on the fire lines of Chicago.

First-year fireman Dan DeGryse '86 brandished his ax and clambered up the rattling steel fire escape clinging to a burning apartment building on Chicago's westside. He could feel the heat pressing toward him. Smoke was roiling from the window seams as he reached the second floor. DeGryse knew he'd made a mistake the moment he shattered the glass with his ax and turned to climb to the next floor.

"You always break out windows from the top floor working down," DeGryse explains. "And never climb above a window you've just broken."

It was just a rookie mistake. Everybody makes them. But in DeGryse's profession, one mistake can get you killed.

He broke out the window on the third floor and with no other avenue for escape, descended the steps through choking fumes and fingers of flame that reached out for his life.

"You try to slow down your breathing, breathe through your nose to filter out the smoke," the former Little Giant fullback says of the practice they call "eating smoke." The skill was a matter of life or death for the "leatherlunged" firemen of the past, and it came in handy for DeGryse.

"After a while, your body gets accustomed to it."

In a fiery twist on the Wabash slogan of "lifelong learning," he never forgot that day. In more than 100 majors fires since, Lieutenant Dan Gryse hasn't made a mistake like that again.

This is the story of a Chicago policeman's son who found his calling on the fire lines of the Windy City-a Wabash man who parlayed a penchant for adventure and a desire to serve others into a career he'd never imagined in college; a career he says he would not have found without the time he spent here. That journey began with his Wabash freshman advisor, Professor of Classics John Fischer.

"If it wasn't for him, I probably would have never gotten through Wabash." DeGryse says in his strong Chicago accent. "He told me what was to be expected of me at Wabash, and when I wasn't doing well in biology, Fischer hooked me up with a Lilly scholar to help me study."

DeGryse laughs as he recalls some of their meetings.

"He'd slap me in the head a couple times, say, 'hey, this isn't the backstreets, hit the books and don't make me look like a fool.'"

DeGryse had enrolled at Wabash with aspirations of becoming "a big businessman, wearing a suit, and driving around in a BMW." Those intentions were derailed when he began struggling with the economics curriculum. He switched to psychology and thought he'd found his niche.

"They encouraged me to go into counseling-said I'd be good with kids," DeGryse recalls. But after commencement the graduate had other plans.

"I thought I'd try business again, since that's why I came to Wabash in the first place."

When the psychology major nailed his first sale for one firm and jumped to the head of the training class, the company's arms opened wide. DeGryse couldn't do it.

"I was supposed to meet these guys for lunch and close the deal, but I told them, "you know, this just isn't for me." He called up a psychiatric hospital that had offered him a job earlier and began counseling. For six years he treated patients from four to 80 years old with problems ranging from addiction to severe conduct disorders.

"It was incredible work," DeGryse says. "But you're lucky if you get one or two phone calls in your career from people saying 'thanks for helping me out, I've been clean and sober for five years.' Usually they call you to say 'thanks,' and four months later they're doin' drugs again."

That frustration, coupled with relatively low pay considering the emotional strain of the job, led DeGryse to apply to the fire department.

"I tell the guys I run into on the job, 'never be complacent with what you have-try to reach another level,'" he says. "I knew I wasn't going to last in that job emotionally or financially much longer."

So DeGryse went searching for a way to help others that had enough spark to keep the work exciting. He found that combination fighting fires. He makes three times his counselor's pay and has been promoted to lieutenant after eight years. But it's the job he truly loves.

"From the moment I wake up to the next morning when I come home, I enjoy every minute. I don't know if those guys making a million dollars a year can say that. Every day is new. Whether it be an emergency medical call, a high-rise, a chemical spill, there's always something new, something a little different."

And, of course, something dangerous.

In early June, DeGryse was pulling hose through a blazing three-story apartment house near the 1000 block of Argyle at 1 a.m. when his oxygen-warning alarm sounded. Checking to see that his men had enough air, he strided for the stairwell to retrieve another bottle. That's when the flames in the ceiling above him plummetted to waist level, dropping DeGryse to the floor.

Unable to see through the smoke and darkness, DeGryse crawled on his hands and knees. He followed the hose like a lifeline, alternating breaths from his oxygen mask with gasps from the carbon-monoxide- tainted air he found as he pressed his face to the floor. He reached the doorway just as the fire dove for the same space.

"I felt the heat down the back o f my neck," DeGryse recalls. Pulling himself over the threshold, he tobogganned down the stairs, tearing off his mask and breathing deeply from the outside air.

"You think about your wife and kids and say, 'Oh, no. I've got to get out of here," DeGryse says, then chuckles. "But the first thing I thought of afterwards was I've got to get back in there. That sounds crazy, but I had to pull out the line so we could fight the fire from the outside."

"I just tell [my wife] Victoria that I'm pretty well prepared for whatever comes up, and you've got to trust what I do," DeGryse says.

Two-and-a-half year-old Daniel, the oldest of Dan and Victoria's three children, has already taken to his father's line of work.

"I think every kid, at some point, sees the lights and sirens and wants to be a policeman or a firefighter. It's the spectacular nature of it. If he grows up and wants to do it-great.

"I'd prefer he'd learn to punt a football 60 yards and get a scholarship and make $6 million a year." The Chicago Bears fan laughs. "But whatever path he takes will be his."

And what will he tell his kids when it comes time for college?

"I see the courses I took at Wabash as being to my life like this book called Essentials was to my time at the fire academy. That book teaches you all the basics about firefighting, and that's what Wabash courses did for my education. You've got to go through all the basics-get a liberal arts education and touch everything. And after you've experienced that, and you find something that feels right, something you can see yourself doing for the next 30-40 years, then that might be the vocation that's for you."

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