Works in Progress: A Legacy of Service

By Susan Cantrell
  December 10, 2003

Generativity knows no age limit; seniors Walter Keeley and Jason Scheiderer founded an organization that lives out the College mission of "act responsibly" and "live humanely."

On March 28 the wail of a fire alarm pierced the early morning stillness outside the Delta Tau Delta house. Bedraggled students and their friends stumbled from beds and rooms into the dark, cold spring air as the brakes and hydraulics hissed from two fire trucks taking up their positions on Wabash Avenue.

Had the students been able to focus, they might have noticed one of their own among the firefighters on Engine No. 2 —Walter Keeley ’03. But in full fire gear, an air tank on his back, and his breathing mask in place, the physics major moved unrecognized among his peers, just another man charged with their safety.

"It was strange, almost surreal, making this run to my own College," Keeley says. "Here’s a building I know, and all these kids I know, and if there would have been a fire, I would have been the first person on the hose, ready to jump in."

Fortunately, it was a false alarm. Unfortunately, students misusing the fire extinguisher during a prank caused it.

But Keeley didn’t have time for embarrassment or anger. His next call was the real thing—the city’s largest blaze in 2003—that put more than 50 firefighters from across the county in harm’s way at the abandoned Midstates Wire factory.

Keeley was called to the firehouse at 4 a.m. after finally getting to sleep two hours earlier. As Glee Club president, he’d been hosting the women of the Chatham College Choir. He got home from the Midstates fire late that afternoon, just in time for a couple more hours sleep before the Glee Club and the Chatham Choir performed.

"The calls always seem to come when you’ve got something going on," Keeley says, but he’s not complaining. "This is like a dream-come-true for me. A lot of kids, when they’re young, want to be firemen. I just never grew out of it."

Keeley and his classmate Jason Scheiderer ’04 are the first members of the Wabash College Reserve Program at the New Market Fire Department, a program they founded with Department chief Mike Seaman and his colleagues.

"I was friends with a volunteer firefighter back home in Syracuse when I was about 12," Keeley recalls. "He’d be working and then, all of the sudden, he’d go shooting off to do this important stuff. I thought that was the coolest thing."

As a high schooler, Keeley was too young to join the Syracuse department.  But when he narrowed down his college search to Hampden-Sydney and Wabash, the Virginia school’s on-campus volunteer fire department, where professors and students serve side by side, was a powerful draw.

He chose Wabash, but he couldn’t get the firefighting bug out of his veins. The cure arrived at the Crawfordsville Pizza Hut.

"Jason ran into Ronnie Seaman during our sophomore year, sees he’s wearing (check this out) a firefighter’s t-shirt, and starts talking with him," Keeley explains. "Jason calls out, ‘Come over here; you’ve got to meet this guy.’ We spoke for a while, and finally Ronnie says, ‘Why don’t you guys come out to the firehouse and let’s see what we can do."

It wasn’t a natural fit. New Market is a ten-minute drive from the Wabash campus, the department did not have a reserve program, and some of the men wondered if full-time college students would have the commitment necessary to approach the job, as the department’s website exclaims, "as a duty, and not a pastime."

But chief Mike Seaman was willing to keep an open mind. Keeley and Scheiderer could be the real deal. And even though they’d be members of the New Market volunteers for two years, other students might follow. They could take their training wherever they lived, filling a national need for volunteer firefighters.

There were some practical barriers to the Wallies’ inclusion. The departments’ bylaws had to be rewritten to create a new "reserve" class of firefighter. And Keeley and Scheiderer needed earn the respect of those whose lives might depend on them someday.

"Some of the guys were right behind us from the beginning, but I think a lot of the other guys had their doubts," Keeley says. "Like, ‘You’re college kids, and you’re smart, but let’s see how you work.’ But as we got to know each other, that was less and less of a barrier."

The Wabash students embraced their avocation with vigor. In addition to the New Market training, they earned national firefighter certifications, waking at 5:30 a.m. every Saturday for six months to learn from one of the top instructors in the state.

"That man has forgotten more about the fire service than I can ever hope to know," Keeley says. And friends he made during the class nurtured an ever-widening network of colleagues in the profession.

"There’s a bond created as you get to know these guys, as you work together in all sorts of weather and conditions and learn to trust each other, depend on each other. I think that’s a bond that endures, but it’s not without its lighter moments."

That brings up the Chrome Blockhead Award, the New Market department’s nod to the firefighter who’s most impressively driven a fire truck through a wall. Keeley was last year’s winner.

I was parking the rescue truck when I hooked it on the door frame," Keeley says, pointing out that the garage is a particularly tight fit. "I pulled it through not once, but twice, and ripped up the door frame pretty good. "They thought it was pretty funny, pulled out Polaroid camera and took my picture in front of the frame, and at the Christmas dinner we have they gave me the Chrome Blockhead—a piece of cinder block painted silver."

Keeley keeps the block on his patio and proudly displays a framed certificate he received with it on his living room wall. He’ll have to bring the block back this Christmas to award it to the next winner.

"They told me that ‘there are two types of firefighters in the world: those who have driven an apparatus through something, and those who are going to.’ I guess it’s sort of a badge of acceptance," Keeley says.

Add to that acceptance the fact that the chief, assistant chiefs and several of Keeley’s New Market colleagues attended this year’s Wabash Commencement ceremony. They were the ones cheering at the names "Scheiderer" and "Keeley."

The department makes about 50 runs per year, and beepers going off in Wabash classrooms and students leaving could have been distractions. But Keeley says professors were flexible and understanding, and Dean of Students Tom Bambrey encouraging.

"He offered to write a Dean’s excuse for me if I ever needed it, but the professors and I were able to work it out."

In fact, most calls came when students weren’t in class. Keeley says that the pager never went off at all in many of his classes. But he recalls the first time it did in Professor Gustavo Barboza’s Econ 101 class in Baxter Hall.

"Right near the end of the semester, the dispatcher hit us up—this set of tones goes off for about five seconds, followed by the dispatcher giving directions. The class stopped dead. Everyone was looking around. I jumped up to leave and Professor Barboza looks at me and says, ‘A fire?’ I say, ‘Yes.’ and he waves and says ‘Good luck."

On a warm and breezy late April evening, Keeley joins his fellow New Market firefighters for some photos for this article. He’s joking with Mike and Ronnie Seaman when I showed up.

Scheiderer readies the garage for a training exercise—a final test for four new recruits in the department’s Wabash College Reserve Program. Keeley will graduate from Wabash in three weeks and is remembering the time he put Scheiderer through this same training ordeal—an exercise in which recruits in full fire gear and breathing apparatus are blindfolded and have to maneuver through an obstacle course, find an injured man, and drag him to safety, all the while bombarded by noise and changing conditions in the building. The fun the men have putting the recruits through it all doesn’t overshadow the seriousness of the drill. Skills not learned here could cost lives.

"I was in Crawfordsville for the summer during my sophomore year, so I got a little went through this part of the training before Jason." He smiles. "That meant I got to be one of those people making things as miserable as possible for him. It’s fun to see Jason go in there and train these guys!"

It’s also rewarding.

"The people I trained are now training the next group of Wabash students," Keeley says. "That a was a goal for me when we started. Not only could Jason and I do this, but if we could get some younger guys in here, we could really get this thing going. And that’s what we’re beginning to see.

Keeley ranks his experience as a firefighter among the highlights of his Wabash career.

"I think this is a good model for community service, and it fits very well with the College’s mission," he says. "It’s good for students, and I think it’s good for the department. They don’t have any of us for very long, but a constant stream of young guys to train reinforces their own skills. And they know that we’ll probably keep doing this work even after we leave."

The fire truck horn sounds, the new Wabash recruits scramble out, and the exercise is over. The veteran firefighters are laughing, and one of them tells Walter why: the recruits left their "victim"—assistant chief Ronnie Seaman—in the building.

"They followed orders—you’re supposed to evacuate the minute that horn sounds," Keeley smiles. "But it would have been better if they’d gotten Ronnie out!"

Seaman emerges from the garage door laughing. Another firefighter gives a mortified recruit a $5 bill.

"I’d have gone to the bank and gotten more if I knew you’d really leave him." The veteran smiles at a properly chastised student, then pats his shoulder.

Seaman quiets the group, explains what went right, what went wrong. It’s as teachable a moment as any in a Wabash classroom. Perhaps moreso. Then the good-natured ribbing resumes, the recruits relax and share in the fun.

Keeley watches wistfully.

"I’ll be at Earlham next year getting my masters, and I won’t have time then. But you can believe that when I’m looking for a job, I’ll be looking to locate somewhere where I can do this again. I’m going to miss it. I don’t think I realized until now that it’s all over. I’m starting to realize just how much I’m going to miss it."