She didn’t tell her parents that she was applying to be one of the first female firefighters in Lawrence history.
Lexie Engleman didn’t even tell them when she got the job.
But as they ate breakfast at their Great Bend home one morning in 1981, they heard the news on the radio about their daughter.
It was statewide news in 1981 because so few women nationally worked as firefighters.
“(My parents) were disturbed,” said Engleman, now a captain with 29 years of experience as a Lawrence firefighter. “I hadn’t told them I was going through the process. I didn’t think I’d be hired.”
Her parents, both teachers, were nervous because it is a dangerous profession, and Engleman said initially she thought she would work as a firefighter for only a short time until she found a teaching job.
She had earned a master’s degree in education and taught physical education and coached in Abilene and Linwood before applying to be a firefighter.
But then, one June day in 1981, she spent her first day on duty.
“I went into my first fire and loved it,” Engleman said, nearly 30 years later. “That was the beginning of the career.”
Next week will be her last on duty as Engleman will hang up her firefighter’s hat next Saturday when she turns 60.
She and Denise Clements were the first two female firefighters in the Lawrence department’s history.
Then-Chief Jim McSwain hired them after they passed several physical and other tests. Clements didn’t stay with the department long.
But Engleman worked her way up the ranks. She will retire as a captain and has been responsible for a shift and crew of six firefighters at Station No. 2, 2128 Harper St. She has also frequently filled in as an acting division chief responsible for 36 firefighters or more in the county.
Mark Bradford, Lawrence Douglas County Fire Medical’s current chief, said Engleman’s career was significant.
“At that point in time there was probably this thought of, ‘Can women really do the job?’” he said. “What Lexie has demonstrated along with other female firefighters that we have is that they can, in fact, do the job, and they can do it very well.”
Bradford said Engleman proved herself as an outstanding firefighter in her long career through both her physical and interpersonal skills.
“She was always positive in everything that she did,” he said.
After she retires, the department will have four female firefighters, including Division Chief Eve Tolefree and Lt. Kathy Elkins.
‘Meant to do’
Engleman said it took some adjustment when she first started as a firefighter.
The media made a big deal out of her hiring.
At first some of the male firefighters seemed apprehensive. But that didn’t last long.
“They figured it out, and we both figured out that it was not a big deal,” she said. “They were great, just so helpful. They taught me a lot of things I didn’t learn in training.”
She also remembers young, female KU students in the early days often giving her the thumbs-up as she drove by in the open-cab fire truck.
Her tenure included responding to many fires and incidents, including one of the department’s saddest days. Engleman was on the scene in 1986 when firefighter Mark Blair was killed at 3028 Rimrock Drive.
At first crews couldn’t find Blair’s body and when they finally did, she went with the chaplain and McSwain to notify Blair’s wife.
“I remember thinking, ‘I hope I never, ever have to do this again,’” she said.
A more recent event also sticks with Engleman. Her crew was the first one inside MagnaGro International last April when two employees at the manufacturing plant died in an industrial accident.
“That incident will always stay with me just because it was everything you have ever trained for and then it’s real,” she said.
In retirement, Engleman has plenty to keep her busy, including the 50 acres she lives on between Lawrence and Lecompton, and visits to her son, Sam, in the Kansas City area.
But she will miss her job.
“This occupation is something different every day. And it’s helping people on their worst day. They said you either love it or you hate it the minute you do it,” she said. “They are right. I knew it. This is what I was meant to do.”