CLEVELAND — Cleveland Fire Department’s most senior firefighter is hanging up his uniform after 40 years of service.
Eric White joined the department in January 1981, and has worked at Engine 10 at 101st and Chester since 1985. Wednesday, he walked out of the station for the last time and is heading off to retirement.
“Oh, I'm going to miss the ride,” said White, who also turned 65 on Wednesday.
White was born and raised in Cleveland and grew up in the Hough neighborhood. He said he became a firefighter after returning to Cleveland following the death of his brother.
Ever since, he’s been a steadfast member of the team.
“If we were playing basketball, he would probably be the Michael Jordan of the station,” said Marco Lavender, a Cleveland firefighter stationed at Engine 10.
White said his love of helping people and his colleagues have kept him in the profession decade after decade.
“The work is not hard. If you're in some kind of shape, the work is never hard. What’s hard is the people,” said White. “The ones you can help, and the ones you cannot help.”
White said he and his teammates always mourn the losses, but they also celebrate the victories.
“That’s part of the reward. It's the next day. Might not help this one, but you helped these three. Might not help that one, but you helped four more.”
Now with 40 years under his belt, those teammates—who have become like brothers—are celebrating White. They hosted a retirement party for him at Academy Tavern after his last shift.
“A 100% mentor off the bat,” said Lavender.
When Lavender joined the department 20 years ago, White was the first one to show him the ropes. He said he was stern, but open and always willing to answer questions and give advice.
“I walked up, gave him a hug, tried to bring it in. He's like, ‘No, we don't do that here yet,’” said Lavender.
But White is still warm in his own way, and above all -- loyal and reliable.
“You respected him and you took him seriously because you knew he knew his job, he was going to be there when you needed him,” said Capt. Tyree Thompson.
Thompson said White encouraged him to pursue a promotion within the department, which he later got.
“Just having him there say, ‘Hey, go take these classes,’ incident command classes, tactics classes, things like that,” said Thompson. “I would go to classes and Eric would be sitting there with all these chiefs and I'm like where did he come from. Eric’s been here 30, 40 years and he's still taking classes, he would take some of them twice.”
Now, White’s younger colleagues plan to take up the duties and responsibilities he fulfilled.
“The senior man is the most important person at a fire station, anybody will tell you that. It’s not a captain, it's not a lieutenant, it's not a chief. It’s the senior man -- which Eric is,” said Thompson. “Just the knowledge that he has is gone, and we can't get it back. So, for us, the guys that came after Eric, to make sure that knowledge continues on and makes this department better—that’s how we can pay tribute to him being here for years.”
Now, as this ride comes to an end for Cleveland Fire Department’s senior man, he’s reminiscing on the old times -- and looking towards the future.
“I will miss the guys, I will miss part of the action,” said White. “It's a nice place, and it offered me the ride so it's my city basically.”
“I’m overqualified as a fireman so I'm hoping to work maybe for FEMA part time or teach for them. I do have a credential,” said White.
White also plans to travel with his wife during his retirement.
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