When my youngest brother, Pat, announced to our mother that he wanted to become a firefighter I suspect that she believed that he was just going through an adolescent phase that would soon enough pass. She told him that she would not give him her blessing to enter the Houston Fire Academy until he had first earned a college degree, a requirement that he dutifully completed. With his diploma from the University of Houston in hand he returned to her once again to announce that he had applied to become a candidate for the Houston Fire Department. This time he was only informing her, not asking for her permission. Shortly thereafter he began his training and was so taken with the lessons and skills that he learned that he graduated number one in his class. It was a proud day for him and all of our family when he earned his badge and a job at the downtown Houston Fire Station Number One.
Pat threw himself wholeheartedly into his work and it was not long before there was a major fire in the downtown area that was so large that it made the nightly news and there in a photograph for the ages stood my brother aiming a stream of water at a wall of red flames that dwarfed him. The image showed his back with his last name emblazoned on his jacket. It was a frightening reminder of just how dangerous his job really was. As a family we tried not to think too much about the kind of things that might happen to him but again and again there were reminders that firefighters literally place their lives on the line each time that they respond to a call for help. They never quite know what kind of situation awaits them and for the most part they rarely discuss what they have seen with those of us who would rather not be reminded of the dangerous possibilities.
Pat was as happy with his career as anyone that I have ever known. He spoke glowingly of the brotherhood and friendships that he shared with his crew members. He proved his mettle as a leader and began to work his way up the ranks, eventually becoming a Captain at one of the neighborhood stations. It was apparent that his men loved him as much as he loved them. They became a second family for him in an environment where he felt confident that he was living his dream.
He returned to school first to earn an advanced degree in Public Administration and then another in Fire Safety. He became such an expert in his field that Mayor Lee Brown tapped him to become the director of the Fire Academy. It was a post that he cherished because it allowed him to share his expertise with young men and women who were as eager to serve as he had always been. He upgraded the rigor of the training process with an eye to preparing his charges for the special demands of being a first responder in one of the nation’s largest cities. It was a very happy time for him but before long he was moving into other arenas of leadership.
He became a District Chief and then a Regional Chief. He helped to investigate fires and to set and maintain high standards for all of the firefighters in the city, all the while humbly doing his work without mentioning his ever growing status within the department. He was always far too busy working for the betterment of Houston to brag about his accomplishments but the men who had worked for him often whispered their admiration.
One of Pat’s most exciting moments came when he accompanied a group of Houston firefighters to New York City on the occasion of the opening of the 9/11 memorial. They traveled by motorcycle all the way from Houston and then participated in a parade in downtown New York. He was so moved by the stories of bravery that he heard from comrades from all around the world. It was a grand moment in which he truly realized the importance of his work and stood shoulder to shoulder with people who understood the unique challenges and joys of being a firefighter.
I can’t imagine what kind of courage it must take to don the heavy equipment of a firefighter and hop onto a truck for a ride to an unknown disaster. On any given day our firefighters know that they may walk into situations from which they will never return. Even in the best of circumstances they often experience damage to their lungs from the continual exposure to smoke. They may fall from the rafters of an attic or have a ceiling come down on their heads. They encounter life and death situations over and over again and are only able to relax once they are safely back at the station. Still they eagerly report to work again and again just as Pat has always done.
Pat Little has served the City of Houston with pride and enthusiasm for thirty six years. He has tirelessly worked during hurricanes, floods, freezes and even when he felt sick. On some nights the alarms awakened him so many times that he had little sleep. There were Thanksgiving and Christmas days when he was faithfully executing his duties while the rest of us were relaxing and celebrating without him. Missing even a single day of work was always anathema to him. He rarely complained when he had to be absent for the milestones of his children or when he had to forego special occasions because he was saving a life. Now his outstanding and selfless career is finally drawing to a close. On Sunday his crew is hosting a party for him and on October 11, he will retire for good. He will be remembered and revered by both family and fellow firefighters for the joy and dedication that he brought to his job for all of those thirty six years. I have little doubt that given the opportunity he would gladly relive his life as a firefighter all over again.
Congratulations, Chief Patrick Little, on a job well done. We are all proud of you and humbled by your quiet courage and your unflagging determination to make a lasting difference in the world. You have done well in a world that is all too often marked by evil and greed. You are our hero, a man who has shown the meaning of service.