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Award Recognizes Career of 46 Years on the Fire Lines

March 03, 1988|DOUG SMITH | Times Staff Writer

As such awards usually do, the one Eagle Rock firefighter Neil R. (Smiley) Wallace received last week mentioned "outstanding qualities of service, dedication and professionalism."

This time, the words hardly seemed to say enough.

After all, the man named 1987 Los Angeles Firefighter of the Year has been serving 46 years, all of it right where he began his career with the Los Angeles Fire Department in 1942--on the fire lines.

Wallace, who will turn 70 this month, said he has never desired a promotion.

"I never took an exam," he said, then reconsidered slightly. "If I ever took one or thought about taking one, it was 40 years ago."

Even today, he said, he would rather lug hoses and go into burning buildings than sit at a desk downtown. He loves the camaraderie of the fire station, which he regards as his second family. He loves the forays into the world every day, even if it is riding backward on a bumpy truck.

He could have retired after 20 years, as many firefighters do. The average career is 26 years, he said. But Wallace worried that his minimum pension would not carry him. He liked fire work more than his other options.

"I would have had to go back to a machinist job, and I didn't like that idea," he said. "I worked four years for Bendix and never got more than two feet away from that machine in a four-hour shift."

After 30 years, the pension reached its maximum. Some of his old friends began to depart. Some were injured, some killed. Others just wanted to start new lives. One took his pension to the South and became a country gentleman.

But Smiley was putting three children through college. The money seemed good, and the job kept getting better.

Transfer to 'Grass Area'

"I worked in Metro," he said. "High-rise and hotel fires, structure and manufacturing. After 26 years, I moved out into what we call the grass area."

His transfer to Station 42 in Eagle Rock brought him to within a couple of miles of the home he had built in the '50s.

He stayed on. Now he doesn't worry about the pension any more.

The kids are on their own now. Thanks to the education Smiley's Norwegian wife, Ilda, insisted they have, two are scientists and a third a teacher.

"I probably will never be able to take out all the money I put in my pension," he said.

But other good things keep falling into place. The station recently acquired and restored a 1908 ladder truck. As luck would have it, it was one that Smiley worked on early in his career.

And little by little, Smiley is becoming famous.

It started with a party for his 39th year, then another for his 40th. About 150 firefighters, a commissioner and a councilman came to the station for his 45th anniversary party.

This year came the award.

"It's not a hero-type thing," Smiley demurred. "It's a recognition of a competent, well-done job."

Today, Wallace is part of a crew of four who take their engine out an average of three emergency calls a day. About half the calls are medical, he said.

The fire work itself calls on short bursts of intense energy, Wallace said. Although a slight--very slight, he stresses--knee problem forced him to convert the mandatory morning run at Occidental College into a morning walk, he is still able to keep up his fire line duties.

"I expect I got that from my mother," he said. "She worked up to the time she was 75."

His 90-year-old mother was a nurse at Queen of Angels hospital until her forced retirement at 65, he said. Then she found work at a convalescent hospital.

In the Fire Department, there is no forced retirement. Smiley can stick around as long as he passes the annual physical and mental tests.

Today, his 46 years make him the senior employee in the department. The longest anyone has served is 51 years, a spokesman for the department said.

Smiley has no specific plan to break the record, but he also has no plan to quit.

"I am very happy here," Smiley said. "It hasn't seemed like a long time to me. I enjoy it so much."

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