A military-style firefighter school pushed then-rookie Bonnie Bleskachek to the limit.
"I was ready to walk out," she remembers.
A training supervisor stopped her. "He told me, 'You're exactly the kind of person the fire department needs.' "
Late last year, Bleskachek got a more official nod along those lines. She became the first woman and the first openly gay firefighter to rise to the top job as chief of the Minneapolis Fire Department. She is one of two women in Minnesota, the other in tiny Madison Lake, to hold a fire department's highest post.
A Wisconsin native and mother of two, the 41-year-old chief is keener on crediting others than taking credit herself. She gives her predecessor, Rocco Forte, credit for a department emphasis on respecting diversity.
In an era of bureaucratic budget cutting, Forte says, the new chief's people-management skills and business-mindedness make her a leader for the times. "She sees the department as a business. Very few people have that ability."
That priority is a switch from the 1970s, when the best firefighter got to be chief, he says. The department has changed measurably from its days as "an old boys' club," says Forte, who now works with the city's emergency preparedness team.
Eighty-three of the fire department's 440-plus firefighters now are women, the highest ratio of women to men in any fire department in the country. Several women have climbed the ladder to captain and other leadership roles. Women's successes in the department have given Bleskachek and others the boost that she says paved the way for her to become chief.
Her rise to the top and an ability to burst through barriers is partly a result of her own hard work in pushing respect for diversity. For 15 years, she co-chaired the department's cultural awareness committee. In a year as human resources officer, enforcing equality was part of her job.
But this new woman chief isn't all business. She brings personal integrity, thoughtfulness and "a quiet air of competence" to her top job, says Kathleen Mullen, a captain in the department.
Her executive side meshes with a woman's touch that Bleskachek says women before her brought with them into a macho work culture. Ask her about her most valued experiences as a firefighter, and she tells of nurturing small children in a crisis.
Delve into her past, and a deep history emerges of rising to the top, navigating male culture and breaking barriers along the way.
Bonnie Bleskachek grew up as the oldest of five sisters in Chippewa Falls, Wis., a town of 12,000 up the road from Eau Claire.
She was a child who seldom slowed down or spent much time indoors. "I'd be outside from 6 in the morning until my mom dragged me in at night," she remembers.
Most of her friends, she says, were boys. The young Bleskachek was captain of the school safety patrol and played every sport she could baseball, softball, volleyball and football. Track was her favorite, probably because a personal-best sport suited her introverted nature, she says.
Halfway through high school, she broke new ground when she came out as gay. "It's not that there weren't other gay students," she says. But she was first in her school of about 1,000 students to take that step.
A teacher took the matter to the school board. "It caused a ruckus for a while," she remembers. But among her peers, she says, her announcement didn't make much of a ripple. Chalk it up to respect. "I had established myself as an athlete and straight-A student."
Her decision to come out had less to do with courage than a sense of equality and justice. "I've just never been really good at keeping my mouth shut if I really believe in something. Or if something's not being accepted."
When did she know she was gay? "My mom thinks when I was 4," is her ready answer. Her biggest concern about coming out was about how talk at school might affect the sister who was just a year younger.
"My sisters are one of my best things," she says. "Along with my kids."
After high school, Bleskachek enrolled at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire to study anthropology and religion. When student loan funds began drying up, she took a career aptitude test that pointed her to firefighting.
In 1989, she became the 10th woman hired by the Minneapolis Fire Department. She joined the department's first all-woman crew, which remains a high point in her career. Her crew captain was Jean Kidd, her most valued mentor and "a trailblazer" for all women in the department, Bleskachek says.
"She was the first woman driver and the first woman captain. I can't even understand some of what she went through, because she changed it," Bleskachek says.
The department's jump from zero to 83 women in 18 years is remarkable, she says, particularly considering the job's emphasis on physical strength and fitness that firefighting and rescue work require.
Kidd brought an opportunity to acknowledge emotion in a historically all-male fire department where a macho facade covered firemen's gentler side, Bleskachek says. "Firemen are compassionate. They wouldn't take the job if they weren't. They don't do it to get rich or famous."
But the culture of firefighting is strong. The model is a can-do person, not one who needs to think or talk about it.
Her chance to talk about the job's emotional impact came after she responded to a car wreck involving an 8-year-old girl whose mother was badly injured. Bleskachek had been reading an American Indian story about a girl named Ictome. "This girl's name was Ictome." When she told her about the book, "it was an instant bond. She grabbed my hand and said, 'Will you come with me?' " Bleskachek didn't leave the hospital that night. She stayed at the little girl's side.
The next day, Kidd asked her, " 'Bonnie, do you want to talk about it?' She had a woman's touch."
On another rescue call, Bleskachek comforted a 4-year-old boy shot in the neck when a drug deal allegedly went bad. He recovered, and she later invited the boy to the fire station to talk with him. "That's what Jean taught me," she says.
As women firefighters became officers, other women picked up encouragement. The department culture was changing, too. Bleskachek saw it up-close after she became the first woman chief of training five years ago. "It's difficult to question whether women can do the job when a woman is your boss," she says.
The first women hired as firefighters "created the space" for women to be promoted, Capt. Kathleen Mullen says. "Those are the ones who made room for us. Even if they couldn't get there."
Bleskachek's rise to chief opens a door for women firefighters across the country, Mullen says. "The impact is way outside, far beyond our department."
In her office at historic Minneapolis City Hall, Bleskachek sits at a desk framed by wide windows that look out on the vast city her department protects.
In one corner hangs a brightly colored map marking the 19 fire stations she oversees. In another, she has hung framed photos of her 10-year-old daughter, McKinley, and son Cameron, 6.
She is ready to make more history here.
Her challenges include cutting $1.5 million from the fire department's budget in the next two years and rebuilding department morale after two blows to firefighters:
- Failure in their last contract, after 40 years of parity, to get pay equal to Minneapolis police.
- Layoffs of 42 firefighters in 2003, though most have since been rehired.
Her typical week is filled with meetings, decisions, paperwork and visits to the city's fire stations, where she likes to ride a rig and occasionally picks up a firefighting shift.
"It keeps more firefighters on the rigs. And I don't have to charge overtime when I work," she explains.
She squeezes in five workouts a week to stay firefighter-fit and teaches once-a-week classes on firefighter safety and respect in the workplace.
In her younger years, she thought about becoming a teacher. "But I wanted something more physically active," she remembers.
"Now here I am with a desk job," she says with a chuckle.
- Who: Minneapolis Fire Chief Bonnie Bleskachek
- Age: 41
- Family: Daughter McKinley, 10; son Cameron, 6.
- Career Track: Firefighter, chief training officer, human resources officer, fire captain, battalion chief, department chief.
- Education: Associate degree in fire science, Hennepin Technical College; B.S. in fire science, Southwest Minnesota State University; continuing studies, Maryland-based National Fire Academy.
- Leadership Style: Information and opinion gatherer who trusts her intuition and instinct.
- Life Lesson: Some things are hard (for her, one was public speaking at first). "Sometimes you just have to gump up and do it."
- Biggest Lament: Cuts in fire departments nationwide. "After 9/11, people said they'd never forget. The sentiment now is people did forget."