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'Fire in our blood:' Honorary firefighter Char Whitbred-Hemmingson named Firefighter of the Year

Char Whitbred Hemmingson, standing with St. Paul Park fire chief Kurk Lee, is given the firefighter of the year award by Rep. Keith Franke, R-St. Paul Park. Photo courtesy of Sandi Dingle 1 / 3
Charles Whitbred Sr. and Charles Whitbred Jr. 2 / 3
Char Whitbred Hemmingson teared up as she was named an honorary firefighter March 24. Photo courtesy of Sandi Dingle 3 / 3

Char Whitbred-Hemmingson always wanted to be a firefighter.

When she was named an honorary firefighter and Firefighter of the Year March 24, her dream not only came true, she was officially initiated into a family legacy that has spanned generations.

Her grandfather Charles Whitbred and her father, Charles Whitbred Jr., were both members of the young St. Paul Park Fire Department.

"Fire must run in our blood," Whitbred-Hemmingson said.

Whitbred Sr. was among the first charter members and eventually became chief in the 1950s.

Whitbred Jr. walked in his father's footsteps and became a St. Paul Park firefighter. While responding to the Applebaum's fire in Cottage Grove in 1962, he had a heart attack and died at 34.

Whitbred-Hemmingson would be born a month later.

The Whitbred firefighting legacy certainly didn't end with the two men.

Several of Whitbred-Hemmingson's cousins and nephews have become firefighters and she forged in fire her own connection with the department.

Whitbred-Hemmingson said she walked to the old fire station on Broadway Avenue nearly every day. As she got older, she started fundraising and volunteering with the department.

"Anything I could do to spend a little more time (with the firefighters)," she said.

"I'm still around there today," Whitbred-Hemmingson added. "I go down there. I can sit there. It's a good feeling for me."

She loves the time she spends at the fire station, and especially likes that she can go there to connect with her family and the father she never met.

"It is very sad, not having a dad my whole life," she said. "I hope he's very proud that I help."

Now an honorary firefighter, Whitbred-Hemmingson officially is part of her family's legacy.

"They have memorabilia down there (at the station): ceramics my mom has made, they made a plaque, there's pictures of my dad," she said. "And now, right across from this case, my name will be on the Firefighter of the Year plaque."

Firefighter of the Year is chosen by secret ballot within the department.

Firefighter Dustin Dziki brought the idea to the other firefighters, and "everyone was for it," he said.

Dziki said he wanted to recognize Whitbred-Hemmingson for all of the ways she helps the department, including volunteering during the annual meat raffle, making dinner for firefighters, cooking 120 pounds of meat with the department for Heritage Days firehouse tacos and being "always willing to lend a hand."

"We wanted to make her Firefighter of the Year," Dziki said. "In order to do that, we have to make her firefighter for the night."

Whitbred-Hemmingson described a feeling of utter surprise when her name was called, and said it "the best day of her life."

"I was totally very honored and shocked and surprised," she said. "All of a sudden I look up and my whole family's coming in. ... It was very emotional, a total surprise."

Though showered with new accolades, Whitbred-Hemmingson isn't slowing down to celebrate too much. She could be found volunteering at the Ham and Turkey raffle March 30, less than a week later.

"I wake up every morning and say 'I'm a fireman,'" Whitbred-Hemmingson said.

"But they still won't let me drive the truck," she added with a laugh.