After 38 years, Vail firefighter Mike McGee hangs up his helmet
VAIL — It’s not true that Mike McGee has been with the Vail Fire Department since the invention of fire.
However, after 38 years with Vail’s fire department, McGee called it a career. At Friday’s retirement party, he even quoted a little Kenny Rogers.
“Now that I’ve had the chance to push my chair back from the table, I can see I’m ahead,” McGee said. “Sure, some of it’s been hard, but it’s been great. It’s time to fold ’em.”
McGee didn’t have to show up Friday for his last day of work, but he did anyway.
“I’m just going to see what happens next,” McGee said.
What happens next, of course, is that his grandson Aidan swaps a child’s fire helmet for grandfather’s command helmet, which McGee took with him after Friday’s party.
McGee also was presented a fire ax with his badge mounted in a frame, depicting both steel and velvet. McGee has both those sides, said Mike Vaughn, Vail’s fire marshall.
McGee’s retirement party was more like a class reunion, with colleagues and friends gathering from all over the region.
McGee was resplendent in his new uniform, cowboy boots and jeans.
The stories started rolling, with McGee reminding his friends and colleagues that his grandchildren were in the crowd, as were all three of his children, and that what happens on the fire line stays on the fire line.
There was a time, though, when Vail’s Marriott hotel caught fire and burned in 1999. Firefighters from every department in the region responded.
One of the most amazing things about that fire was that the Vail Rotary Club was having a party in one part of the hotel when the fire broke out in another part.
As firefighters got a handle on the blaze, McGee stepped to the side and was heard saying, “Well, I could use a hot dog and a cold beer.”
His retirement party was at the fire station in West Vail, as it should be. The station was mostly McGee’s idea and had been planned since 1982.
He was even the construction project manager. He also ran the project when the main Vail fire station was renovated.
Both his office and his mind are the repository of much of the department’s institutional memory. They’ll miss that and more, said Vail fire Chief Mark Novak.
“Over the next few months and year, we’re going to have all kinds of questions. The answer will almost always be, ‘McGee knows that,’” Novak said.
Much of that institutional memory is also housed in the massive stacks of paper in McGee’s office.
“He has a heart the size of the stack of papers on his desk,” said Mark Miller, former Vail fire chief.
The thing about McGee is that you know what you’re going to get when you ask him a question, even if it’s an answer you might not want.
“He’s not really concerned with what other people think. He hasn’t changed his hairstyle or moustache in 38 years,” Miller said.
If he had his way, every building, shack, chicken coop and vehicle would have sprinklers, Novak said.
“Vail is a better place because of Mike’s work here,” said Stan Zemler, Vail town manager.
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 and email@example.com.
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