Lenny Walter had no idea what to expect when his shift began that day in early 1975.
He and his partner, Larry Pellegrino, had just completed two months of Emergency Medical Services training to become Rockford, Illinois’ first firefighter EMTs.
Their ambulance was a 1950s model and together they were assigned to the city’s Station 1.
“The captain looked at me and said, ‘You gotta go when the alarm goes off,’” Walter recalls of their first day with the ambulance.
Naturally, it wasn’t long before the alarm did sound. Walter and Pellegrino jumped into the ambulance to respond to a car accident at the intersection of North Court Street and Auburn Street. Inside one vehicle, the force of the accident had propelled a woman’s head into the windshield.
It was serious.
“When we pulled up, there were cops everywhere and it was a mess,” Walter said. “Pretty soon, you don’t think about anything but what’s wrong with the lady and how can we help her.”
Walter and Pellegrino quickly extracted the woman from the vehicle and put her into the ambulance. Unfortunately, the woman could not be saved.
For Walter’s first call, it was a pure gut punch. But the next call later in the shift was more successful and so were many, many more that followed.
Walter and Pellegrino were local pioneers in the national EMS movement that brought sweeping changes to the way first responders handled medical emergencies. They set the stage for advances that have helped save lives and improve outcomes for countless people in the decades that followed.
Walter had been a Rockford firefighter for just over a year when he became an EMT in 1975. He joined the department after a four-year stint in the United States Air Force. In between, he had briefly been a painter and a drywall finisher.
When he interviewed with the fire department, they asked what he was looking for in his career.
“Steady wage, insurance and benefits,” he responded.
He found all that and more during a career that spanned 29 years before he finally retired in 2003. His time on the ambulance lasted less than two years before paramedics became a vital part of the department.
Still, Walter was always a firefighter and EMT, and he had plenty of eventful calls.
In the 1980s, he responded to a call of a suspected heart attack during Bingo Night at Boylan Catholic High School.
“We got into the gym, and they’re still calling numbers. I-47 and so on,” he said.
“But there was a woman on the floor and a cop doing CPR.”
The woman wasn’t breathing. Making matters worse, the police officer was performing CPR incorrectly, inflating the elderly woman’s stomach to the point where she appeared nine-months pregnant. Walter took over and began performing mouth-to-mouth and hand-to-chest compressions, as was protocol at that time.
He brought her back.
When her eyes opened, she fixed her gaze on him and squeezed his hand. She never spoke, but she refused to let go. She held his hand and looked at him the entire ride to the hospital in the ambulance.
That night was one of two calls in which Walter successfully revived a victim who was not breathing. He’ll never forget it.
Though long retired, Walter remains close to the Rockford Fire Department. He regularly drops by Station 5 and Station 10, bringing treats to the firefighters on duty. When possible, he hangs around to talk with the latest generation of first responders.
“There’s always somebody who says, ‘Hey, Len. Tell us a little history,’” he said.
So as the firefighters sip their coffee — Walter usually goes for decaf these days — he’ll tell them stories of what it was like in the 70s, 80s or 90s. It’s incredible how much times have changed, he says, but it’s important to stay connected to the history of the department.
The Rockford Fire Department is certainly a lot busier these days. Walter noted that his first ambulance — the one from the 1950s — never got much more than 12,000 miles on it.
“These guys, their ambulances are turning over 100,000 miles in a year or two,” he said.
Walter is proud of the career he built, the city he served and the lives he saved.
Today’s firefighters are equally proud and grateful for the pioneering role he played in taking emergency response to the next level.
“It was a very good job for me. I enjoyed the guys, the camaraderie,” he said. “Still in my heart, I’m a firefighter. And I will be until the day they plant me in the ... well, wherever they’re gonna plant me.”
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