A Life: Bruce Stearns, 1941-2012; ‘It Made Him Feel Good to Help People’
Bruce Stearns holds his catch in an undated photograph. Fishing is a sport Stearns enjoyed. (Family photograph)
Windsor firefighter Bruce Stearns, left, stands with Lew Gage, former Windsor Fire Chief in an undated photograph. Gage credited Stearns for "saving his life" when he recognized Gage was having a heart attack during a training exercise and got him to the hospital. (Family photograph)
Windsor — For nearly 40 years, the name Bruce Stearns was synonymous with firefighting in Windsor.
Stearns, who died Jan. 14 at age 72, served as the fire department’s deputy chief for 21 years and chief for five years. He was also an EMT with the town’s ambulance service.
“Dad loved the fire service,” said his son Steve Stearns. “He loved the brotherhood, the belonging, the constant learning and teaching of others. The shifts were long but every day was something new.”
Over the years, Stearns earned a reputation that went beyond the technical knowledge needed to battle a blaze in frigid conditions or save lives at a rescue scene. It seemed fire service was both his vocation and avocation.
“He did it because he loved it and it made him feel good to help people, not because he expected anything in return,” said his daughter, Carol Stearns White. “Despite the 12-hour shifts, the 12-hour on call shifts, missing out on family things, the danger he faced ... I never heard him complain about having to go to work. He took great pride in his career and he was good at it.”
Retired Windsor Fire Chief Lew Gage worked with Stearns for 26 years.
“He was always ready to do what needed to be done,” said Gage. “He was a good man to have on a fire scene and a rescue scene.”
There were a couple of incidents that stand out to Gage.
After a training fire a number of years ago, firefighters were cleaning up at the scene when Gage said he needed to take a rest in an ambulance. Moments later, Stearns stepped inside.
“He realized I was having a heart attack,” said Gage. “They got me to a hospital and things went well from there.
“The guy saved my life and for that I’m forever grateful.”
Then there was the car accident scene with a man pinned under the vehicle. With a crowd of onlookers gathering, Gage said Stearns decided to have them help.
“He organized the onlookers to help lift the car and pull the guy out,” said Gage. “Would I have trusted anyone but Bruce to do something like that? Probably not.”
The job demanded long hours and a change of plans in a moment’s notice. Shopping trips were cut short, holidays interrupted.
“We’d be at P&C with a cart full of groceries and then Dad’s pager would go off and we’d have to rush off and get him to the station to respond to his call,” Steve Stearns said. “The fire service works 24/7, holidays, weekends, nights. Someone needed help, someone needed to go.”
Being a “dedicated fireman,” Stearns also took calls for ambulance at night during the week and he would be on call several nights a week.
“So after working his usual busy 12-hour shift, he’d be on call at night and be out all night, just to get up and do another 12-hour shift in the morning,” Steve Stearns said. “I don’t know how he ran like that for so long.”
With a job that demanded he drop everything when there was an emergency, it would be logical to conclude that Stearns’ family life suffered. Not so, say his children. He loved the fire department but was an equally devoted husband and father.
“Maine vacations were the best because there was no fear of Dad getting called out, getting a phone call, meetings, trainings ... we had him all to ourselves,” said White.
“No matter how late dad was out or how little sleep he got, when he was home, he was a family man,” added Steve Stearns. “He would do anything for anyone, give you the shirt off his back.”
Not all the calls Stearns received were the emergency they first seemed to be.
Steve Stearns said early on in his career, his father worked nights for the first several years in the department and one night he received a frantic call from home from his mother who heard the sound of someone trying to break into their home.
“She heard picking noises and thought someone was cutting the screen on the window,” he said, relating the story he was told.
His father rushed home and discovered the noise was a pet hamster picking at something in his cage, Steve said.
“It’s funny now but I can imagine mom being terrified.”
Stearns was well-known for his cooking skills and in particular, his red hot chili.
It was not unusual for him to show up at the fire station with a big pot for all to enjoy.
“It would bring a sweat to your forehead,” said Ron Vezina, a retired fire department chief who worked with Stearns for years.
Vezina loved to sit with Stearns, sharing some chili, and reminiscing about their service.
“He was a remarkable guy. I can’t say enough good things about him.”
Beth Gould, a nurse at Mount Ascutney Hospital, worked with Stearns for 17 years in the ambulance department.
“Bruce was a wonderful person and a guy you could talk to. When we had the cadet program for young firefighters, he would always take the kids under his wing and help them. And he would do the same with the EMT program,” said Gould.
Steve Stearns joined the program when he was 14 and learned about firefighting and first aid. They had turnout gear, received first aid certification and were allowed to go on fire calls.
“Dad had a huge influence on people. People looked up to him,” his son said. “Dad taught us a lot, whether it be rolling a hose or ‘dressing a hydrant,’ we were all ears.”
Steve and Carol have a bank filled of memories of her father’s willingness to help others anytime, anywhere.
“My dad was the kind of guy you hope your daughter marries,” said White. “He was the sweetest guy.
“One of the other things I always looked forward to was Christmas shopping with him for my Mom. She would give him a list and he would get her everything that was on that list. And then some! After he retired, he would drive Mom to work, make them a picnic lunch and then go have lunch with her.”
Carol said her father was a huge help when she decided to return to school.
“Dad was always willing to help out however he could,” she said. “He would drop the kids off at school, pick them up, take them to sports, watch them while I studied. I couldn’t have done it without him and my mom.”
Stearns’ cooking talent was legendary, from his chili, chicken barbecue sauce and especially his mostacholi.
“He’d prepare it for days. He would get the ingredients and start to cook the onions and sausage and then get the sauce going,” recalled Steve. “It was always a production but he loved to cook.”
After retirement, Stearns was able to take more time for hunting and fishing and enjoying his grandchildren.
“Dad was a great role model for me and so many other people,” said Steve. “He will be sorely missed.”
Patrick O’Grady can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.