Longtime firefighter steps into new role

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As a firefighter with Cornbelt Fire Protection District, Tom Pike devoted his life to protecting the people of Mahomet. When a stroke nearly ended his career in 2002, he thought he'd never have a chance to work with Cornbelt again.

But he was wrong.

As the newly installed president of the Cornbelt Board of Trustees, Pike is now able to follow his passion from a new perspective: as an administrator rather than a firefighter. He was welcomed into his new role at the May 18 trustees' meeting.

“I never thought I would be a trustee, let alone be president,” Pike said, looking back on the days he spent at the fire station as a young boy. “I guess it tells me that there's more people out there who have confidence in me than I could've ever imagined. Especially after the stroke.”

Pike's father, Cecil, (known as “Shorty”) joined the Mahomet Fire Department before Tom was born, and before it became the Cornbelt Fire Protection District in 1953. He eventually retired at the rank of lieutenant in 1965.

His family lived just across the street from the fire station.

Cecil Pike “used to go over to the station and run the trucks when I was 7 or 8 years old,” his son remembered. “And I had to go with him every day. Even after he retired, whenever I would see someone [at the fire station] I'd come over there.”

Tom Pike joined Cornbelt in 1975, when he was 19. Over the next few decades he progressed up the ranks to become assistant chief of the department. Along the way he gained certification and expertise in a wide variety of emergency management fields, including hazardous materials and water rescue. He's also a certified emergency rescue technician and emergency medical technician. At the same time, Pike balanced his firefighting duties with his role as site superintendent at Lake of the Woods.

“He's full of energy and commitment to Cornbelt,” Fire Chief John Jay said. “He's one of, if not the most, committed firefighters I've ever seen.”

“He was a very eager learner,” former Fire Chief Steve Parker recalled. “He always strived to get himself trained in the latest technology.”

But then, on a summer night in 2002, Pike's firefighting career came to a halt. He was at home when, according to his wife, Lea, he had a small seizure. She called the fire department, and Pike's colleagues rushed to his aid.

By the time he got to the emergency room he seemed fine, and doctors initially doubted that he'd had a stroke at all. But he stayed in the hospital, just in case.

He's been told that he collapsed the next morning. Pike doesn't remember. But when it was all over, he found that he couldn't walk or talk.

“I remember lying in the hospital bed, and all I could think of was that my days of being a firefighter were over,” Pike said, his voice filling with emotion. “But my wife wouldn't let me give up, and my son wouldn't either.”

As Pike underwent months of intense physical therapy, the members of the department were there for him and his family. He doubted whether he'd ever be able to return to his old life, but his coworkers knew otherwise.

“He was always a fighter,” Jay said. “I don't think any of us doubted he'd come back.”

His fellow firefighters were “unbelievable,” Pike said. “Even after I was discharged [from the hospital] they'd come pick me up and take me to breakfast or down to the station.”

He credits their help, as well as the support of his wife and their son, Justin, in speeding his recovery. He's also grateful to his sister Linda McClughen, and brother Terry Pike, both Mahomet residents.

After therapy, Pike learned to speak again and is now able to walk with the assistance of a leg brace. Although he still has no use of his right arm, he's been able to return to the jobs he loves.

John Potts, then executive director of the Champaign County Forest Preserve District, wouldn't let Pike retire from Lake of the Woods after the stroke.

“I talked the neurosurgeon into letting me come back to work the following January,” Pike said. At first he worked half-days, three days a week, before returning full-time in May 2003. He's now been working at Lake of the Woods for nearly 32 years.

Meanwhile, at Cornbelt, Jay created a new position—safety officer—for Pike. Although he held that post for four years, eventually “it wasn't working,” Pike said. He retired from the department in 2006.

He found himself in the same position he'd been in as an eager 7-year-old, watching the fire trucks go by. He knew he had to find some other way to stay involved.

“I sat at home,” he said, “but I just had to be up at the station.”

He decided to run for the Cornbelt Board of Trustees, and was elected to a six-year term in 2007. He served as secretary until rising to the post of president two months ago.

When he was first approached with the possibility of putting his name on the ballot, he wasn't comfortable with the idea. But his wife, he said, “talked him into it.”

Since then he's learned that the trustees “run the department other than at the fire scene,” setting policy, managing the budget and overseeing the purchase of equipment.

The role has given him a new perspective. Being able to look at problems from both sides—as a firefighter and an administrator—presents both benefits and challenges.

“I have to look at the money side of things now,” he said.

He's seen a lot of changes over his 36-year career with Cornbelt. When he joined the department, they averaged 65 fire calls per year and had only four trucks. Instead of dialing 911, residents with an emergency called the “fire phone.” Pike still remembers the number: 586-3341.

“We didn't have all the expertise that firefighters now have to have,” he said. They didn't have training in hazardous materials, and when extricating accident victims from cars, they had to use hand tools.

Now, things are much different. Cornbelt firefighters answer about 800 calls per year, he said. Most of these are medical emergencies, now that a paramedic is on duty at the station at all times.

The department also has a 102-foot ladder truck. “It's something I always dreamed of, but never thought we'd have one,” Pike said.

Pike's son Justin, 24, has followed in the footsteps of his father and grandfather and is now a volunteer firefighter with Cornbelt. “A third-generation firefighter,” his father said proudly.

Although Pike is honored to serve as president of the board of trustees, he still treasures his memories of the days he spent battling fires instead of balancing budgets.

“I still miss getting on the fire truck and going to a call,” he said. “I guess I always will.”

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