Illinois Fire Museum Curator Achieves Childhood Dream

Firefighters save lives on a daily basis, but sometimes become heroes for a different reason - their relationships with children. David Lewis, who spent his childhood in hospitals due to physical disabilities, grew up to achieve his dream of dedicating his life to the fire service thanks to the encouragement of his heroes.

No stranger to Firehouse Magazine, David Lewis was interviewed at age 16 in a December 1983 article titled: "Special Call - A Remarkable Teen Who Over-Shadows A Handicap With His Love For The Fire Service," in which he shared his hopes of one day running a fire museum.

Lewis has since become the curator of the Aurora Regional Fire Museum in Illinois, as well as a nationally recognized fire historian credited for his contributions to numerous projects, including several books and documentaries on the Discovery Channel and the History Channel. He also recently worked with a toy manufacturer to create a line of historically accurate firefighter action figures, to benefit the national Fire Museum Network.

Through his many accomplishments, Lewis now serves as an inspiration to others.

"The short version of the story is every little kid wants to be a fireman and I never stopped," Lewis said.

The full version of the story begins in 1967 in Northbrook, Illinois where Lewis was born with multiple birth defects including scoliosis, a severe curvature of the spine. He was in and out of hospitals until age nine and underwent 30 major surgeries.

During one home convalescence, a fire broke out in an upstairs bedroom. Lewis remembers his awe as the big red fire truck rounded the corner with lights and sirens blazing. When the firefighters saved his home and his kitten, a lifelong fascination with the fire service was ignited.

During one early trip to the Scoliosis Clinic in Minneapolis, Lewis visited the fire station near the hospital, and the firefighters embraced him.

They visited him often at the hospital, showing up in their turn out gear and bringing him down to the fire truck to talk on the radio. They even made his room the communication center for hospital fire drills.

"One of the firemen really took me under his wing, and provided a wonderful means of support and encouragement," Lewis said. "He was the tillerman on the back of the fire truck, which in the eyes of a four-year-old, is even better than chief.

"My expression is I got hooked and laddered," Lewis laughs.

After the 1983 Firehouse Magazine article ran, follwed by several other newspaper articles, Lewis began to receive mail from firefighters across the country. For years afterward, family vacations included visits to those fire departments so that he could personally meet the firefighters who wrote.

Lewis also found several outlets for his growing interest and expertise in the fire service. In high school he volunteered with the Salvation Army Canteen Truck to be on the scene with firefighters, and he became a member of the local "speaker's bureau," giving talks about the Great Chicago Fire to area grade schools.

Lewis's path to Fire Museum Curator was a natural fit that combined his passions for the fire service, history and collecting antiques.

It started in 1989 when he heard about a project to turn an old Aurora fire station into a museum. He went down on a whim, he said, and was soon asked to become the curator. The museum opened in 1990 and Lewis continued to serve as a volunteer there while attending college. In 1990 he also became one of the founding board members and secretary of the Fire Museum Network, a group of 300 fire museums across the U.S.

Over the next decade Lewis gained experience on other historical projects in Massachusetts and New York, and earned a Master of the Arts degree in History Museum Studies at the Cooperstown, New York Graduate Program.

Everything then fell into place in 2000, when the Aurora Regional Fire Museum received a million-dollar state grant. Lewis advised them to hire a business manager, and the business manager then advised them to hire a professional museum curator. Lewis's ultimate career was launched. "It's a dream come true," he said.

In the beginning, the project was a bit daunting. The dilapidated fire station, built in 1894, was full of holes and leaks and was covered in layers of gray and pea-green lead paint. It had also been the victim of numerous renovations over the years, which the museum operators reversed. They brought back the horse stalls, turned the kitchen back into a hay loft, brought back swinging bay doors instead of overhead doors, stripped the paint off the walls, and restored the building's facade which was modernized in the 1940's.

The restored fire station now displays an exhibit on 100 years of technology in the fire service, from the colonial bucket brigades onward. For each era, the exhibits examine four topics: getting the alarm, getting to the scene, getting water on the fire and getting rescued. The artifacts include a collection begun by the Aurora Fire Department in 1966, as well a collection of earlier artifacts and photographs including an 1870's hand pumper, a 1907 steamer, and other apparatus from 1918, 1921 and 1925.

Lewis plans to add computer kiosks to the exhibits to display early film footage and further information on the artifacts. He said an exhibit upstairs will soon open, which takes a look at the human side of the fire service - the people, the teamwork, sacrifice, pride, and other universal topics.

Although he has achieved his lifelong museum goal, Lewis still has a few dreams to chase.

One of those dreams is to produce a traveling exhibit based on his graduate school thesis on the relationship between children and firefighters in American culture, called "Didja Ever Want To Be A Fireman?"

The paper is based on four years of research and contains hundreds of photographs and poignant quotes. Lewis said he received an outpouring of support for the research, which partly came though the forums on Firehouse.com. He said the TV show Emergency! was a huge influence on kids in the 70's, as were firefighter family members.

Lewis said one of the most satisfying aspects of his work is that he now gets to inspire other children the way he was inspired as a child. When they come to the museum, "Their eyes light up, it's so much fun," he said. Many kids come wearing firefighter costumes, and one father told Lewis, "My son is so into it, we'll be at the supermarket and he'll start counting sprinkler heads."

"He's a born fire inspector," Lewis laughed.

In addition to inspiring children, Lewis said he loves giving something back to firefighters by inspiring them with stories of their history and culture.

"It's wonderful to pass on the traditions," he said. "When I'm able to talk to new firefighters and old, and really get it across that the things they're doing now are much like the things they did 50 or 100 years ago, that they're part of a longer tradition, that's exciting," he said.

After Lewis began to document the Aurora Fire Department's current history, he said firefighters there started taking pictures again and got excited about preserving their own history. "That's what it's all about," he said.

"When a five-year-old's eyes light up that's exciting. But when a 25-year-old firefighter's eyes light up and he starts asking about the history of his own company, when his engine was first started, that's exciting too," he said. "It's a connection on a different level."

Lewis says he is truly blessed for having the opportunity to live out his childhood dream. The fire service is also blessed to have him.

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