After 45 years in the fire service, he still has the same enthusiasm as a rookie.
“When the tones go off, he’s jumping on the truck to go,” said Keith Scarbrough, Cleburne Fire Department assistant chief.
Mike Duckworth, 66, has been a member of the CFD since July 3, 1968. He came on board with no training and no idea what he was getting himself in to.
“My brother and brother-in-law worked here at the fire department and they seemed to like it,” Duckworth said. “I’ve been here ever since.”
Duckworth said he was just “looking for a job to provide for his family” when he joined CFD, but didn’t ever imagine how rewarding it was going to be or how long a tenure he’d have. When he hit his July 3 anniversary, he was the fifth-longest serving Cleburne employee, and in the coming months he will only continue to move up in rank.
The longest-serving employee, former Fire Chief Lloyd McVicker, will likely be the only employee to surpass Duckworth’s tenure. He had 54 years under his belt at retirement.
On the job
In 1968, firefighters only had “on the job,” or OTJ training, Duckworth said. Back then, older firefighters taught rookies how to dress in now-primitive fire gear, how to put out different kinds of fire and a little bit about fire science. At the time, there were no accident extrication tools that are commonplace today or emergency medical services on the fire side of things.
“They taught us what they thought we needed to know, and then they turned us loose,” Duckworth said. “A year or two after that, the state said people who worked at the fire department needed training. Everyone already on the job was grandfathered in ... I learned from the [new guys]. I saw right away that schooling was a good thing and I picked up on it.”
And it’s a good thing he learned so quickly.
“The first fire I can remember going to was a car fire,” he said. “We were in the ‘convertible engine,’ the 1953 LaFrance. The fire was at Washington and East Henderson; by the time we got there, the fire had been pretty much put out.
“We get out and we’re talking to the people there, and this guy goes, ‘There goes your truck.’ I had forgotten to put the emergency break on. It rolled maybe, five or ten feet, and into the curb. It didn’t hurt anything except my pride and embarrassed me.”
There were other laughs, too, along with some minor injuries.
“There was a huge, two-story wooden home on fire,” Duckworth said. “We got there, it was a completely bloomed fire.”
Duckworth and his partner were tasked with keeping the house next door from lighting up, so they got between the two houses with a hose and kept the flames at bay — mostly.
“It was so hot, it blistered me through my bunker clothes, melted the lights on the truck, melted my partner’s helmet,” Duckworth said. “We were putting water on the fire, then we’d stop for a little bit, and then put the water on ourselves. You just don’t think about it being that hot.
“There was a little old man next door — probably a little older than I am now, in his 70s — using a water hose on his house. Then he turned the hose on himself and went ‘Ooo, ooo, ooh!’ and ran inside the house. It was so funny watching that little old man jump around like that and run inside.”
Now, Duckworth said, he is the old man. But he tries not to let that slow him down too much.
“When we bought the new engine in 2010, the guys joked that we were going to need a wheelchair lift,” Scarbrough said with a laugh. “Now we think we might actually have to.
“If you asked him what he wished for, I bet he’d say he was 25 so he could work 30 years longer.”
CFD Chief Clint Ishmael said it’s been a bit of a culture shock, having come up through the ranks as a firefighter “rookie” under Duckworth and now working with him.
“He is always honest and to the point without sugar-coating it,” Ishmael said, recalling a bit of harmless name-calling during an early fire investigation where he was shocked by a live wire after dousing a house fire.
Through it all, Duckworth’s wife, Betty, has stuck by his side. The two met when they were about 14 years old and have been together pretty much ever since.
“She didn’t like me being gone every third day,” Duckworth said. “But she got used to it. It probably works out best that way. If you never see each other, you never argue.”
The couple have two grown children, Barry Duckworth and Michelle James. Granddaughter Mackenzie James is grandad’s pride and joy.
“If I knew she was going to be so fun, I’d of had her first,” Duckworth said.
Duckworth said that though he has no set date for retirement — it could be a year, two, maybe more before he finalizes things — he plans to spend more time with family when he retires. But that doesn’t mean he won’t find a way to visit the department every now and again.
“Mike Duckworth has found the positive in why he wanted to come to work,” Ishmael said. “That’s what’s heroic about Mike. He’s seen a lot of things change throughout our department, but he’s always maintained a good attitude.
“Mike definitely will be missed. Again what he contributes to us other than his sheer experience and knowledge is his attitude and that’s what’s hard to teach. He’s a role model for young folks coming in.”
Asked what he’d say his most heroic act as a firefighter or emergency medical technician was, Duckworth sat, picking his mind through decades of CPR, vehicle extrications, animal rescues and more.
“Have I done some heroic things?” he asked. “I wouldn’t say that. Sometimes things just work out. I’m just doing my job.
“You’ll be sitting there, and the next thing you know, the bell goes off and your adrenaline goes up and you’re trying to save people.”