Irma Blair had only lived in Lawrence four years when her new husband, Lawrence firefighter Mark Blair, died at age 34 fighting a house fire in 1986. Irma became widowed, with one infant son and pregnant with their second.
More than 30 years later, Lawrence firefighters have not forgotten Irma Blair.
Blair, 61, was diagnosed with breast cancer in February. She lives alone in her Lawrence home, and her sons, now adults, both live out of state — one in Indiana and the other a member of the U.S. Army in Texas.
A recently formed nonprofit called the Lawrence Professional Firefighters Charitable Foundation has mobilized to give Blair — and her house, which was in need of repairs she couldn’t do on her own — more than one helping hand as she battles the disease.
“I’m very humbled to have so many people who already risk their lives that help others, to help me in a time of need,” Blair said. “I’m very grateful and thankful for all they have done and will keep on doing.”
Blair’s first round of chemotherapy involved almost three months of weekly visits to the University of Kansas Hospital in Kansas City, Kan. She’s just started her second round of more aggressive treatments, requiring her to go to Kansas City every other week for about two months. After that she’ll undergo surgery and, depending on results of that, possibly radiation therapy.
Blair, an early childhood and special education teacher with Kansas City, Kan., public schools, was able to finish the school year but unable to work over this summer as usual. She said the chemo has left her too fatigued and queasy to drive herself to the treatments in Kansas City.
A lot of people each have contributed “a little grain” of help, Blair said, including neighbors who drove her to her first several treatments.
While she had not stayed in touch with more than a couple local firefighters through the years, Blair said she reached out to a current battalion chief who knew her husband and let him know what she was going through.
He connected Blair with firefighter Tim Reazin, who’s also the mayor of Eudora and chairman of the Lawrence Professional Firefighters Charitable Foundation.
“I just called her and asked her what I could do to help,” Reazin said.
First, Reazin and his wife stepped up to drive Blair to Kansas City for treatments — each an afternoon-long event including labwork, doctor visits and the treatments themselves. Reazin organized other firefighters and volunteers to drive her and pick her up, so she’s had rides for the past 10 weeks and will as long as she needs them, he said.
While at Blair’s house, Reazin noticed she needed some help. Again, he and the other foundation board members organized other firefighters to finish tilework her sons had started but weren’t able to complete, install new windows she’d purchased but couldn’t put in herself, get her roof fixed, get her air conditioner fixed and even paint the house.
A number of local firefighters do such work professionally on their days off, Reazin said. In other cases, the foundation has gotten donated goods or services for the cause.
“We’ve just kind of had a lot of good things come through,” Reazin said.
In 1986, the Lawrence Daily Journal-World reported that Mark Blair was the first firefighter to die on duty in the 127-year history of the Lawrence Fire Department.
Blair, a seven-year veteran of the department, became separated from other firefighters while fighting a blaze inside a house at 3028 Rimrock on July 17, 1986, according to the newspaper. The following day, a 21-year-old man was charged with arson, first-degree murder for Blair’s death and two counts of attempted murder, as his parents were asleep inside the house when the fire broke out. David Winebrenner was later convicted and given a life sentence, the paper reported.
Irma Blair said she felt blessed and “very, very grateful and thankful” for the current firefighters’ help this year as she battles cancer.
“They don’t say no, they just take over and do whatever they need to do,” Blair said. “There is a lot of people who go through the same thing that I’m going through, and they might not have the support.”
Help the Lawrence Professional Firefighters Charitable Foundation
The Lawrence Professional Firefighters Charitable Foundation, a nonprofit organization, accepts donations of services or money. The organization’s mailing address is P.O. Box 442229, Lawrence, KS 66044.
The group also has a Facebook page, at facebook.com/Lawrence-Professional-Firefighters-Charitable-Foundation-177182009354565/.