By Brandi Makuski
After more than two decades with the Stevens Point Fire Dept., Lorna Whalen has said goodbye.
Whalen has been the department’s administrative assistant since 1994. She retired from the position on March 3, just one week past her 23rd anniversary.
Whalen, 63, said when she first took the position, the job title was “Confidential Secretary” and the department was just getting its first set of computers.
“When I first started it was four hours a day; then it went to six hours a day, then eight hours a day,” Whalen said of how the job changed over the years. “The computers 23 years ago were so different, and back then they were tied to city hall–and network connections weren’t the best. If we lost the city hall connection, you couldn’t even use your computer.”
Whalen said she had to master the computer system to teach others in the department–and that wasn’t easy.
“I had to write down every keystroke for the gentlemen back then, every direction,” Whalen said.
While part of Whalen’s duties–which have spanned six fire chiefs–have been secretarial in nature, the bulk of her job consists of finance and payroll. She said there are separate pay categories which have to be assigned to each firefighter, depending on the kind of work they’re doing, and she’s been responsible for keeping it all straight.
Along with the accounting work, Whalen has been the first face seen by the public when they enter Station No. 1 on Franklin Street. She’s greeted tour groups, took in deliveries and even took phone calls from individuals who, in their panic, called the fire station instead of 911.
“You never know the calls you’re going to get. You get some calls for an ambulance, some of those can be a little scary, and it’s like, ‘Why didn’t you call 911?’, but sometimes people don’t think in an emergency,” she said. “I’ll take their address and phone number real quick and say, ‘Now, I want you to hang up and dial 911’.”
But each day is different, Whalen said, and that’s been the best part of the job for her.
“No two days are alike; it’s really a variety,” she said. “One day I’ll have to finish a tour because the station cleared out quickly because [firefighters] have been called to a fire; the next day it’ll be a little more quiet and I’ll have a conversation with a gentlemen who comes in for a burning permit. You have to be able to juggle. You’re pulled in so many different directions all the time.”
The hardest part of retiring, Whalen said, is the people she’ll leave behind.
“I’m going to miss the people; they are my family, more than my real family,” she said, referring to the firefighters she’s worked with as “precious” and “awesome”.
“These guys here go out of their way for you,” she said, adding her role in the male-dominated department has become that of a mother-figure over the years. She’s been witness to their best days, she said, and their worst, and eats lunch with the firefighters almost daily in their private quarters on the second floor of the firehouse.
“But they do more cooking for me than I’ve ever done for them,” she said, laughing.
“They do a lot of joking, but in their profession, if they don’t make light of certain things, it’s really hard on them,” she said. “I see it, I see what they go through. Sometimes I’m a mom to them, a grandma to some of them, sometimes, and that’s OK. That’s the way you evolve in life.”
Whalen’s shoes will be hard to fill, according to Chief Bob Finn, who once referred to her as, “just as much a member of the fire department as any of the guys here”.
“What am I going to do now? I don’t know,” Finn said jokingly at Whalen’s retirement party on March 3. “Lorna’s always been the glue behind the scenes that held this place together. She’s going to be missed.”
“It was a very difficult decision to leave,” Whalen said. “But you have to weigh all of your options, everything going on in your life. Sometimes those decisions are made for you; sometimes you have to take the bull by the horns and say, ‘OK, it’s time to go’, and that was the case for me. But if they ever need me to come back and help out, I’m just a phone call away.”
Whalen said she plans to spend her retirement spoiling her grandson, visiting family in Texas and tending to her garden.