Kentucky Fire Department Ceremony Honors Lifelong Volunteer

After more than 50 years of dedicated service with the Lexington division of fire, it does not appear that Donnie Ridley plans to retire any time soon.

Retirement is something Ridley's sister, Myrna Burke, says she has discussed with her 66-year-old brother, but it's not an option that interests him.

"I've tried to get him to retire, but he won't," Burke said, chuckling. "I think it's wonderful that he's had the longevity to stay here."

Yesterday, Ridley was promoted to deputy chief, making his time with the department even sweeter.

Ridley, who is mentally disabled, has been an adopted brother of the fire department since he lived around the corner from Station No. 5 as a teenager in the 1950s.

Veteran firefighters say Ridley started hanging around the crews when his mother lived down the street from the station at Woodland Avenue and Maxwell Street.

The firefighters used to wave to Ridley in his front yard when they were going on calls. Eventually, his mother allowed him to go to the station every night from 6:30 to 8:30, said Ron Short, a retired captain.

Short said the men at the station took Ridley in, and in 1955, they gave him a uniform.

Soon thereafter, the fire chiefs started a tradition to promote Ridley through the ranks.

Short, who worked at Station No. 5 from 1978 until he retired in 1993, said Ridley was a permanent fixture at the station.

"All of the guys that come here have to learn his ways -- they know to watch out for him and to take care of him," Short said. "He's just as important to us as anything that comes in and out of this station."

When Ridley's mother died in 1995, he moved in with his sister, and his once-frequent visits slowed down.

Nowadays, Burke takes Ridley to work with her at Kwik-Set Fasteners Inc. She said she tries to take him to Station No. 5 every afternoon from 4 to 5:30.

During Station No. 5's 100th birthday celebration yesterday, Chief Robert Hendricks promoted Ridley from assistant chief to honorary deputy chief, the highest rank next to chief.

The celebration was attended by current and retired firefighters, their families and local residents. It included food and refreshment, music, a dunking booth and a display of old fire equipment and vehicles.

"If you don't know Don, you've missed something," Hendricks said during the ceremony.

Hendricks said the promotion did not come with any monetary salary; however, "it comes with years of gratitude for your faithfulness to Station 5."

The chief also said the station would overlook a six-month probationary period, automatically granting Ridley permanent employment. Hendricks then gave Ridley a white chief's helmet resembling those worn during fires.

Mayor Teresa Isaac made Ridley a distinguished citizen of Lexington and presented him with a key to the city that "unlocks the door to every fire station in Lexington."

Ridley, uniformed in a chief's white button-up shirt, blue dress pants and dress shoes, smiled amid applause and cries of "Chief Ridley!"

"Thank you very much. Thank you very much; God bless you," Ridley said.

Distributed by the Associated Press