Gilliam found calling in fire department
By Mark Ambrogi
Ken Gilliam was studying economics at Wabash University when he came to the realization that spending his life behind a desk was not for him.
“I had planned to go in the business world,” Gilliam said. “Through a part-time (construction) job over the summer I got to know some of the (Noblesville) firefighters. I thought that seems exciting what they do. Work is different every day.”
Gilliam started with the Noblesville Fire Department in February 1974 while he was still finishing up his final semester at Wabash.
“I wasn’t absolutely positive that’s what I wanted to do for life, but when I went on my first fire, I was positive,” he said.
Gilliam, 63, retired as Noblesville Fire Chief on May 22. Greg Wyant, who was the assistant chief, has taken over for Gilliam. Matt Mitchell has been named assistant chief.
This was Gilliam’s second stint as chief, he previously served from 1993 to December 1995. When it became clear because of a change of city leadership, Gilliam was going to lose his job as chief in 1995, he took a job as fire chief in Sandusky, Ohio. When Mayor John Ditslear was elected he returned as Noblesville’s fire chief on Feb. 16, 2004, the 30th anniversary of his hiring date.
“Fire Chief Gilliam is a true Noblesville success story,” Ditslear stated. “We are honored not only by his years of service but how he impacted the city throughout his career. Chief Gilliam has diligently served the community with devotion, courage and integrity.”
Gilliam said it was an adrenaline rush of the job that sold him.
“I played a lot of sports when I was a young man,” Gilliam said. “Most of the time, just like sports, is preparing to do what we do, training, maintenance. Unfortunately it is someone else’s bad luck that you are going to it is still what we prepare for. And when you do it successfully, it’s a huge reward. I always tried to put the citizens and firefighters safety first. I felt that if you remember who it is you work for and put the focus on that, you’ll be doing the right thing.”
One of Gilliam’s most memorable incidents happened in his first few months on duty when there was big fire, causing him to miss one of his final exams.
“Wabash was strict about final exams and didn’t make many exceptions if someone didn’t show up,” he said. “I was really fearful they might not allow me to retake it. I went over and talked to the professor. He said ‘That’s either the truth or the most creative story I’ve ever heard. So it must be true.’ And he let me re-take the test.”
Gilliam said he had been contemplating retirement for the last few years.
“It’s just a thing you have to prepare yourself mentally for,” he said. “You walk in the door at 22 and leave at 63, that’s pretty much been my whole life. I can hardly remember what it’s like to not be in the fire service.”
The avid fisherman said he has a second home in northern Arkansas, near Bull Shoals Lake, and plans to split time between there and Noblesville.
“A lot of people ask me if I will get bored, and I say I don’t think so I have too many hobbies,” Gilliam said. “Plus as with most people, I have half a dozen projects I’ve started on my house, so I’ll have the time to do those now.”
Besides fishing, Gilliam said woodworking is a passion he wants to start again. He also plays guitar and five-string banjo. He was in a band for a number of years but gave it up about five years ago.
“I can’t stay up that late anymore,” he said.
About Ken Gilliam
Age: Turns 64 on Nov. 13.
Personal: Married Wendy in 2007. Has two children, Craig, 35, Allison, 34, from his first marriage and one grandchild.
Education: Degree in economics from Wabash University in 1974. A 1970 Noblesville High School graduate, he played football, basketball, baseball and track and field for the Millers. Graduated from National Fire Academy’s executive fire officers program in 1999.
Favorite type of music: “Blues is pretty high on my preference list right now. I like the old Delta blues.”
Favorite TV show: History Channel and National Geographic Channel shows.