Kehoe retiring after 21 years


NORTH PORT -- Most of the office has been packed. The pictures are off the wall. But the Grateful Dead mousepad, the souvenir ax and the sense of humor remain.

"That can be rented for a small fee," Ellen "Pixie" Kehoe said, finger pointed at the large, heavy ax the North Port Fire/Rescue Department presented to her this week. Embossed with a firefighter's shield, the ax is a symbol of the more than 20 years Kehoe has spent with NPFRD. She will get to hang up the ax Saturday, her first day of retirement.

"I'm going to miss people and the excitement," said Kehoe, 53, the department's life safety officer. "But I'm not as young as I used to be. This is a young person's career."

Kehoe's work as a firefighter started not in North Port, but in New Jersey where she worked as a volunteer firefighter in Pattonberg. During the day, she worked at a family-owned restaurant that would allow her and the chef -- another volunteer firefighter -- to leave on a call if needed.

Kehoe's childhood ambition was to be a veterinarian, but the math got in the way. She regrouped. Firefighting gave her another way to rescue.

"There was no one to protect the community," she said. "It was my way of giving back to the community. I always thought you should give back."

In 1978, she moved to Charlotte County, where she worked at as a volunteer EMT. A friend, another volunteer, said North Port was looking for EMTs. She and Lori Zietlow would be the only two women at the station.

In 1984, she was the first female firefighter hired by the North Port Fire/Rescue Department.

Given the nickname "Pixie" by her mother at birth, the description fits. At 4 feet,11-and-three-quarter-inches tall , Kehoe admitted she is not the 5 feet she has been claiming for years -- her height, or lack of, presented special challenges.

But the fire within wanted to fight the fires outside.

"I'm sure it crossed a lot of people's mind that I couldn't do it," she said. "But they were supportive -- 'you're going to do this.' I lifted weights and we practiced and practiced and practiced."

In her 21 years, Kehoe's career would also include being fire inspector, fire prevention officer and captain. Though most would think it was the fires of 2001 -- a controlled burn that burned out of control in North Port Estates, consuming two houses -- that was most memorable to Kehoe, it was the fires of April 1989, between Sumter and Cranberry boulevards.

"That was the day that North Port burned," she said. "It was huge. About 2,500 acres burned in two fires that an arsonist set."

She said she had a different perspective of the 1989 fires -- she was on a truck at that time. She vividly remembers rolling up the windows of a non-air-conditioned truck to keep out the smoke and flames. The cab felt like an oven.

"It was like walls of fire on either side," she said. "You had to drive very slowly and carefully because of the smoke. You had to totally focus."

Though she was no longer on a truck in 2001, that didn't stop Kehoe from pitching in and doing what needed to be done.

"She was working with the local and national press," said Cindi Bassett, NPFRD executive assistant. "She was driving through the fires to get food to the guys out in the field fighting the fires. She was riding by a house, saw a fire that was too near and started pulling hose. She did what needed to be done. She really gained my respect."

The respect grew after Hurricane Charley. Kehoe remained in North Port while her husband, Mike Kehoe, Charlotte County Fire & EMS battalion chief, rode out the storm in Charlotte County.

She does not talk about the event, but she and her husband lost contact in the aftermath. Their Dalmatians, Booster and Lucky, were boarded at the Emergency Operations Center in Punta Gorda when the roof ripped off.

"She was still working the maps and trying to assess the damage in North Port," Bassett said. "You knew she was worried to death, but she kept on going."

Kehoe is well-respected by both her peers and the community. Deputy Chief Don Adams, her supervisor, said she has been both a dedicated and loyal employee.

Chief William Taaffe said any church, assembly, restaurant or civic association will know "Pixie."

"She always has time to listen and talk to people," he said. "They trust her word and she sets an image of confidence and assurance of the capabilities of the fire department. Yeah, I think we are going to miss her."

Kehoe will continue her work with both Rotary Club and Toledo Blade Elementary School. But she doesn't plan to be "retired" for long. Kehoe is considering starting her own fire-safety consulting business to work with architects and engineers.

"I think I'll only be able to sit by the pool and drink coffee for a few weeks," she said. "That will be OK. But then I'll want to get going."

You can e-mail Renee LePere at lepere@sun-herald.com.

By RENEE LePERE