HARPER WOODS - Fire Chief Sean Gunnery is a hometown boy who grew up part of the Harper Woods family, a Harper Woods Little Leaguer, and then dedicated almost 21 years to keeping his town safe. He said it won't be an easy day when he has to say goodbye later this month, as he is taking an early retirement at the age of 47 to save the financially strapped city money.
"It's going to be emotional; my last day's going to be emotional, no doubt about it," Gunnery said.
"It's been an honor to serve the city of Harper Woods," he said. "I was a Harper Woods Little Leaguer. I was a Harper Woods boy. I guess, in my heart, I always will be."
His career in Harper Woods started as a firefighter paramedic and he worked his way up to the top position in the department, which he has held for the last eight years.
When he started in the department, he didn't realize the impact that answering the call to help those he knew as a child and those he loved and admired would have on him over the years.
"You might have to work on rescuing someone that you've known all your life, and that's happened on several occasions," he said. "It can be a very emotional thing."
Not only can it be emotional to rescue those people; it can be even tougher when they don't make it. Gunnery has had to tackle those situations, as well.
He's been on duty or dealt with the loss of some of his childhood heroes during his time in the department.
"We lost Bob Comfort," Gunnery recalls. "He was my high school baseball coach. That was heartbreaking."
He also remembers when Ben Nicholich died years ago.
"He was Father Baseball here," Gunnery said. "He had passed away from a heart attack on one of my duty days."
"The fatal fire that we had on Roscommon - I grew up with that family," Gunnery said. "That was one of the most heartbreaking days of my career."
Gunnery, a married father of two, understood the need for the city to cut costs, and he went into a mutual agreement with City Manager Randolph Skotarczyk to end his career with Harper Woods earlier than he would have in better economic times.
"Department heads are the highest salaried employees (and) I'm one of the few department heads left here," Gunnery said.
While leaving is tough, he said one of the things he'll miss the most after he walks out the doors one last time will be the camaraderie among police officers and firefighters.
"When you choose a career like a police officer or firefighter, it's not a job. It's a lifestyle. I think we all share that connection. I just feel like they are two of the most noblest professions on the planet."
His fellow firefighters and others in the city are being supportive of Gunnery as he prepares to go.
"I'm getting a lot of handshakes," he said.
Gunnery cross-trained as a police officer in 2010, so he can do both police and fire duties. His immediate plans don't include living the retiree's lifestyle of leisure activities and hobbies, but he does hope to put his skills to work in a new role.
"I feel like I still have a lot to give to the public safety," Gunnery said. Before leaving, Gunnery wanted to recognize the Grosse Pointe departments, the city's mutual-aid partners, for all their help over the years fighting fires and responding to the needs in Harper Woods.
"For the last few years, it's been a very trying time," Gunnery said. "I was always very appreciative of the effort they put forth when they came over to help us fight fire."
Skotarczyk said this agreement had nothing to do with wanting to get rid of Gunnery, who he said has done a good job for the city.
Others also praised Gunnery's work as a city employee and administrator in the Fire Department. "He has served us well for many, many years," Mayor Ken Poynter said.
This move will help save money because the city has plans to pare down that role to something at a significantly reduced salary and possibly part-time, as the city moves into a different direction with public safety matters.