Sunday, July 29, 2012

Barry Henby and the Birthday Emergency

When I first met fire chief Barry Henby, we were freaking out. 

It is a disturbing phenomenon that young children must have fancy birthday parties, preferably someplace innovative and expensive. I have never been a planner, plus I am cheap, so I was NOT a fan of this trend when my boys were having their little boy birthday parties. 
The fire station seemed like a reasonable choice for my son Joey’s seventh birthday, because what kid doesn’t love a fire truck?  Despite my reluctance to part with money, I would rather write a $150 check than have a bunch of sugar propelled kids sprinting around my house.  This was back when I actually had a corporate job and drawing pencil portraits was just a fun side gig, so I shouldn't complain about the cost, but you know how I enjoy complaining.

If you want me to hate you,
be early.
On the day of the firehouse party, being the chronically late fool that I am, some of Joey’s guests were already waiting for us when we breathlessly arrived in a rush of tangled balloons and plastic bags full of birthdayness.  If I ever invite you to anything, please don’t ever be early.  One time a friend came a half hour early to Bunko and I almost punched her.

Enduring the mild fear that seems to accompany any event where I am the hostess, I trooped into the fire house with my amused guests and excited children, only to hear that they didn’t know that we were coming.  I’d paid in person weeks before, but of course I hadn’t thought to confirm.  With a frozen smile on my face, I pleaded for mercy through gritted teeth.  More children arrived and I began mentally checking off the stuff I wouldn’t have time for, like decorations or any sense of calm, rah-rah birthday parenting.  Not that any of it mattered in comparison to dragging the whole crowd over to my messy house or out in the parking lot. 

Before we knew it, Battalion Chief Barry Henby had arrived to rescue us. 

They’d called Barry at home on a Saturday, and he’d rushed over as if it were a real emergency instead of an abnormally large boy's 7th birthday.  The party was freaking adorable.  Chief Henby was a showman, entertaining the kids and a few curious parents, while teaching important fire safety.  We loved the animated way he involved each of us, keeping a dozen second-graders in rapt order.  After his dog & pony show, we took a tour of the fire station and all climbed into an ambulance.  The kids got to try on a real fire hat while Joey got to put on the whole fireman shebang.

Adorableness worth every birthday party penny.

Joey got to sit in a big fire truck and RUN THE LIGHTS AND SIREN.  All the kids secretly despised him for getting to do something so cool, none moreso than his little brother Maxwell.  The photo below is an excellent example of how Max was a master at picking the worst times to pitch a fit.  At three years old, Max could blow a good time in thirty seconds flat, if he wasn’t the center of attention.  It amazes me that Max is the polite, sweet boy he is today.  We thought he just might grow up to be a serial killer back then.  It's a good thing he was so damn cute.

Max being Max and Joey in firetruck heaven.

All in all, I walked away thinking that Barry Henby was one heck of a guy.  I wasn't alone.  By that time, Barry had clocked many hours becoming one of Gurnee’s greatest guys.  When I started to write a book about some of the wonderful people I'd drawn, Barry graciously agreed to give me the dirt on what it's like to be a local hero, although he'd never call himself that.

Barry grew up in Tuscola, IL, a small farm town. He earned an associate’s degree in criminal justice from a junior college and a BS in Law enforcement administration from Western Illinois University.  He wanted to go get some bad guys.

Barry met his wife, his soul mate of 36 years, in college.  “We had a first aid class together,” he told me.  “I tried to fix her up with some of my friends and three years later, we got married.  She thought I was rich because I bought her flowers every week, then she found out the sad truth.” 

“When I got out of college, my mom made me look for a job and I got hired as a police officer in Glencoe, IL.  I loved being a police officer.  People thanked me for arresting them sometimes because I did my job in the most pleasant way I could.  I didn’t get aggressive or nasty.  I figured I was just putting them into the system and the judge would figure out what to do with them.  I knew some police officers in different communities who let the power go to their head."

Becoming a police officer in a Chicago suburb was a rude awakening for a farm kid from central Illinois. “When I came up here, I was shocked at how many more officers were needed because of what people do to themselves and to others.  When a burglar invaded someone’s home, the victims were devastated to be so violated.  It was hard to see the outrage and anguish they felt.  Glencoe had a high Jewish population, and there were some terrible anti-Semitic phone calls.  It was a shock to see what people thought was funny and the resulting pain it caused.

Yesss!  We have guns.  Rock on.
“My buddy Paul and I were passionate about our jobs and VERY motivated. We were rookies with only two months under our belts, but by the end of our shift, we caught bad guys right and left, filling the jail.  It was fun to be a police officer!  We were constantly high fiving each other and enjoying the heck out of it. 

“The chief let us borrow his unmarked squad car for burglary control at night.  One night, I responded to a call with lights and sirens.  Someone pulled out in front of me and I locked the brakes, skidding into a big boulder in front a residence.  It sent the car flying onto a woman’s front porch, crashing into the house.  The lights were flashing, radiator was steaming, it was a mess.  Back then, we didn’t wear seat belts and I’d really hurt my back.  I was staggering around in pain and the lady came out on the porch, yelling, ‘Oh no!  A drunk hit my house!  Call the police!’  I said, ‘Lady, I am the police.’ 

“When I was in high school, I loved the show Emergency!  Going on rescue calls was amazing; everyone could tell that I liked it so I went to paramedic school and I was first in my class.  I wasn’t that smart, but if I hadn’t passed, I would have gotten fired.  My wife and I were thinking about starting our family and I was scared half to death of what she'd do to me if I didn't pass. 

“Today, on a rescue call, you’ll see two or three paramedics at the site.  Back then, there was only one and they relied on you to know your stuff.  One of my first saves was when we were defibrillating a guy and giving medication.  To see everything that I was trying actually work blew my mind.  To see someone hurt with major trauma, apply the skills that I’d been given, and save a life.  It was wild."

Barry also delivered a baby in someone’s home.  "Ironically, the parents were a doctor and a nurse who waited too long.  I was on the scene with a lieutenant who was on the receiving end of the mother to be, so to speak, while I was on the telephone with the hospital, letting them know that the baby was coming.  The lieutenant called me over to check something out, and then grabbed the telephone from me, tricking me into changing places.  That was something to see a life come into the world right in front of me. 

“I’d heard good things about the Gurnee fire department.  I interviewed for the chief and got on as a volunteer.  About a year later, I tested for a full time fire fighter/paramedic.  Working for the fire department has been wonderful.  I’ve helped deliver three children in town.  I was the first one in on the Warren Township High School fire.

“Hey,” Barry interrupted himself, “I don’t need to take up too much room in your book.  You just tell me when you’ve heard enough of my crap.”

What?  Was he kidding?  I loved this guy and he was more a part of my history than I’d realized.  The high school fire had happened my senior year at Warren, in December 1984.  It had gutted our school, destroying the oldest, wooden part of the building which had included the English department.  I loved to write and my favorite teacher of all time, Mrs. Johnson in freshman Honors English, had such a student following that older students had returned to build a stage in her room.  She had years and years of costumes, props and precious writings from the school’s creative magazine.  So much of it had all gone up in smoke with the rest of our senior year.  My classmates and I stood beside the wreckage, peering up through the charred gash that had once been the center of our school, our lives.  I was in tears.  I graduated early and felt robbed of those last happy high school days.

I remembered that the fire had been initially extinguished and we were all so relieved.  But then hot spots had re-ignited and burnt it beyond repair.

Barry corrected me with some rare frustration. “That’s not how it went down.  We knocked out the first fire really quickly and then the kid came back and started it again.  I hated how it overshadowed the incredible work we’d done on the first fire.

“Another big fire happened at a hotel in Waukegan, eight people had died.  We climbed to the sixth floor, discovering a number of deaths.  I carried a barely alive, elderly woman through the flames six floors down on the rickety fire escape while a buddy of mine helped navigate.  She was in her nightgown and had suffered smoke inhalation… it was a pretty dramatic sight.  When we got down to the ambulance, I was exhausted and rested off to the side while they put the woman on a stretcher.  Suddenly, TV cameras rushed in and my buddy got all the credit for the rescue!  He got calls all the way from California congratulating him.  He kidded me, insisting that I hadn’t actually been there, telling me I’d imagined it.

“We work hard, but hanging with the guys at the firehouse is the best.  A lot of them are young and crazy, messing with each other all the time.  When we have carrots for dinner, I can’t look away or someone will grab a carrot off my plate, stick it up his nose and put it back before I know it.  We’re always playing jokes, picking a bed up off the floor while someone is sound asleep, then dropping it.  Sometimes I can’t go to the bathroom without someone sticking a video camera over the stall.

“But when it comes time to do our job, we’re instantly focused on what needs to be done for the public.  We get it done.”

Barry told me that it isn’t enough just to fight fires and protect the public.  They need voters to support their fire department with taxes in order to get the training and equipment they need.  "We have to get out there and show the public what we do,” Barry stressed.  “I believe strongly in the customer service aspect - how we treat the public.  We send get well cards, signed by the fire chief and the paramedics, to anyone who lives in Gurnee when they are involved in an ambulance call with us.  We have birthday parties for children.  We open our doors to college or high school students looking for technical/vocation education, and have them ride along with us.   We're among the best fire departments in the state on customer service."

And it does make a difference.  Barry did a demonstration for the kids at school stressing the importance of having a home fire exit plan.  Children should know two ways out of every room, families must have a meeting place outside.  Our kids came home from school determined to make an exit plan, which we did.  Barry was featured on a fire department poster that I saw hanging at the kids' schools.  His friendly, capable face made you feel safer just looking at him. 

In 2006, I saw in the newspaper that Barry Henby was chosen as the Gurnee Days honoree, nominated by the people of Gurnee. I called the Gurnee Days group and suggested that I draw Barry for his recognition dinner. They loved the idea, if it was free. For once, I didn't worry about money.

“What an honor!” Barry exclaimed.  "I guess it's my small town roots, but I think you should help your neighbors.  I cut the grass for some of my senior neighbors, give them a hand if they need help, take down their Christmas lights.  Isn’t that what you’re supposed to do?" 

I presented Barry with his portrait at his honoree dinner in front of 250 people, who each knew him personally.  “My mom came up from central Illinois,” Barry smiled.  “She was so proud!  That was really something special.  My sons shaved their heads to match dad’s balding head.  I thought there were lots of deserving people and I just felt so humbled to be chosen.  It was like an everyday guy got recognized, and people seemed to get a kick out of that.
"My wife gets uneasy with some of the accolades.  She was a good sport, but she doesn’t like being the center of attention.  You can take one look at my wife and know why I fell in love with her, she is such a beautiful lady." 

A few years after Joey’s party, we ran into Barry in line at Ace hardware. My kids recognized him instantly and stood up a little straighter, brightening at the prospect of rubbing elbows with a local celebrity. They poked each other and whispered loudly, peeking at him.  I said hello, shook his hand and reminded him that he’s saved the day for Joey’s party. He acted as though he remembered (it takes a good fake-rememberer to know one) and proceeded to pull magic tricks out of his pocket for the kids. He did a little show for them, right there in line, which as much gusto as if he were performing for a roomful.  I asked if he always walked around with magic in his pocket.
“Of course!” he said, as if there wasn’t any other way to live. 
In 2010, Barry retired after thirty years of service to the Gurnee fire department.  With so many important accomplishments, so much to take pride in, Barry probably doesn't remember the September day in 2003 that meant so much to a frazzled mom trying to show a sweet little seven year old boy how very much he's loved. 

Our hero.


  1. Wendy, this one is a real treasure! Maybe you should send it to the Gurnee paper (is there one?) as an article they could use. I'm sure there must be many people in Gurnee who would be interested in reading about their home town hero!

  2. Wendy I love this one!! He comes to the school for Readers Are Leaders. The kids love him :) I actually didn't know he was at our fire that many years ago til I read this!! You really have a talent for this - Mrs. Johnson would be proud!!

    1. He is such an entertainer! When I was googling him, I saw that he was listed on some magic site, too. Everyone loved him. Mrs. Johnson reads my blog and wrote me a note about this one. She was the teacher of a lifetime for me.

  3. Great reading. I never knew that about the Warren Fire. I've been telling the wrong story for years...but what else is new!!!

    1. Me too! Although I used to tell about the hot spots, and then it was just enough to say that our high school burned down our senior year.

  4. What a great story, that touched my heart!
    Melissa :)

  5. This is an excellent piece of writing. I remember hearing about the fire and could only imagine what you all went through. Mrs. Johnson was one of my favorite teachers. Her class was always full of creativity that, I'm sure, other classes lacked.

    1. Thank you so much! You had an excellent alibi being in Philly for three years.

  6. Wendy, next time you see Barry ask him about getting locked in a closet while answering a burglar alarm while a police officer in Glencoe.

    His Training Officer.

    1. He must have needed a little extra training from his training officer!!!

  7. Barry is still working as a driver for Cancer Treatment Center of America CTCA in Zion. He is has a welcoming smile and wonderful personality. He has made my battles bearable. ❤❤❤❤

    1. How wonderful! Coincidentally, my mother is currently undergoing treatment there too. I will look for him! He is one in a million and such a special person.


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