Evergreen’s Studious Smoke Eaters
A firefighter, a professor, and a nurse walk into a bar. This was the scene at the 2 Mile House tavern, formerly known as Spud and Elma’s 9 Mile House, at the start of a three-day Evergreen firefighters reunion in June.
Around 35 Greeners and their plus-ones spent hours poring over memorabilia, telling stories, and connecting with those who participated in the firefighter-student arrangement, which launched in 1971 and had a 10-year run. In return for their service as firefighters for McLane Fire Department, students received free room and board and a small summer stipend. Some who attended the reunion hadn’t seen their fellow firefighters in 30 or 40 years.
“There was a lot of crying and a lot of laughter at the reunion—it was perfect in that respect,” said Kyle Noble ’77, who moved from New York State to attend Evergreen and was the first woman to join the program in 1976.
Eight more women joined the program in the ensuing years, including Barbara Greene ’79, who was hired by the Olympia Fire Department as a firefighter and paramedic, and Maggie Roberts ’91, who was the first female firefighter for the city of Shelton. Those two were among the first 50 professional women firefighters in the nation.
“Barb and I attended a conference for women firefighters in Colorado in 1979, and people were pinning their hire date on a board,” recalled Roberts. “That’s where I realized we were really on the cutting edge of something. Barriers were changing.”
“Whether Evergreen knew it or not, they were helping things change,” agrees Noble.
The program was unique in that it not only encouraged women to join, but was the only program of its kind to form a partnership between a fire district and a college—an innovative use of student availability and Evergreen’s proximity to Station 91, the firehouse at Mud Bay Road. Students would study by day and be ready to respond to emergencies by night. They were at first housed at Station 91, then moved into a makeshift fire station on campus.
For many, what started as a way to afford to continue college became a life-changing experience. From car accidents, to structure fires, to on-campus accidents (someone once lost a finger while working in the wood shop!), their service was intense, meaningful, and at times, heart-wrenching.
“What I think none of us recognized was what one my fellow student firefighters, Brian Stricker, said; ‘It was a hero’s journey,’” said Roberts. “It was the journey we all needed at that point in our lives and it gave us the courage to see ourselves in any role possible. But I think everyone at Evergreen had courage—we were all at Evergreen because we had vision.”
Today, Noble is retired from a 40-year career with the U.S. Forest Service (though she was just fighting fires in August) and Roberts is a potter who sells her wares at the Olympia Farmers Market. Roberts fought fires for 12 years before returning to Evergreen to finish her degree, then went on to work for the Pierce County AIDS Foundation and Planned Parenthood. Greene retired from the Olympia Fire Department after more than 26 years of service.
Dedication to careers in public service is a common thread for Noble, Roberts, Greene, and nearly all the former student firefighters. From paramedics to a critical care nurse, from directors of nonprofits like John Stocks ’81, director of the National Education Association, to professors, these Greeners are serving those who need it most, just like so many students graduating from Evergreen today.
A video is in the works, funded by Jonathan Moceri ’81 and edited by Jonah Barrett ’17. It aims to capture the firefighter program history, memories, and shenanigans, along with a look into the reunion.