MT. JULIET -- About the time many people start talking about slowing down, maybe even retiring, Sue Street and her husband Andy went into training to become firefighters.
“I was 56, but I was in the best shape of my life,” Street recalled.
That’s what started Street on the path to becoming the chaplain of the Wilson County Emergency Management Agency (WEMA), but there were a few twists and turns on the way.
The only part of her fire academy training that really worried her was the segment that requires firefighters to crawl through a tight, twisting tunnel to simulate a fire rescue, Street explained.
“Once I finished that, I knew I had it made,” she said with a grin. “After that, I never stopped smiling the rest of the week.”
Her interest in firefighting was ignited when there were two fires in her Mt. Juliet neighborhood. “We went, but we couldn’t do anything,” she said. So she and Andy started working to organize a Community Emergency Response Team in Willoughby Station.
The couple and 21 of their neighbors took the classes to allow them to help emergency responders when they were needed, and became volunteer reserve firefighters.
Street was in good physical shape due to her job at the time teaching water aerobics for Sports Village. She also ran 20 miles a week. So when the chance came to attend the fire academy, she was the first one to raise her hand, and Andy was second.
While they were there, Street picked up the nickname she still carries at the WEMA fire stations around the county – “Granny.” But some of the firefighters soften it to “Mama Sue.” It seems especially right since she has become the WEMA chaplain.
“She’s our grandma,” Firefighter Eric Aldridge said at WEMA Station 3 in Mt. Juliet. “She takes care of us. She’s always there to lend an ear, or just to be there when we need her.”
Mama Sue comes through for her firefighters in lots of ways, too. Recently, she officiated at Aldridge’s wedding when he married Dispatcher Maegan McMahon.
Since Street has become chaplain, she doesn’t fight fires like she did at first. Now her job is to take care of the families at fires and other emergencies and make sure the firefighters get needed support on the scene.
“She’s our rock,” Firefighter Rick Lawson said at Station 3. “She’s there at 4 in the morning when it’s freezing, with hot coffee.”
“That’s a badge you can’t wear,” Street responded. “It’s in your heart.”
Street is there on her knees in the middle of the night praying with scared families, too. That’s how she became chaplain. WEMA received a call to deal with a standoff with a barricaded gunman.
“I was on a command post team,” she said. “I had the guy’s son and wife, hugging them and praying with them in the middle of Carthage Highway.”
Jerry McFarland, the WEMA director at the time, saw her. Next day, he called her into his office.
“He said he’d never seen anything like it in his life,” Street said. “I was worried that I was in trouble, but then he asked me if I wanted to be the chaplain.”
Street just really loves people, she explained – especially “her” firefighters and medical responders, so the job seemed perfect for her.
Next she was asked to be a courier for WEMA carrying messages and supplies to the various stations around the county. “It was perfect,” she said. “I wanted to get to know all the firefighters.”
Some of the guys had a little trouble at first adjusting to having a female chaplain, she also said. “But now they’re my best buddies – they’re always kidding with me.”
Sue and Andy Street also have worked the Wilson County Fair for 13 years in a row now, and they plan to work it again this year. They drive the “gators” that transport fairgoers who have any problems.
Some years, they’re heat problems; other years, they’re sprained ankles – and sometimes, they’re more serious injuries and health issues. “UMC (University Medical Center) has a small building where they do triage,” Sue said.
But after dark, things usually slow down a little and she just enjoys the fair. “The kid in me comes out at the Wilson County Fair,” she enthused.
But the most important thing in her life remains her husband, a retired financial officer at the U.S. Postal Service who now performs a similar job as a volunteer for Rescue 23, the local non-profit organization that provides on-the-scene support services for emergency personnel.
It was Andy’s postal job that first brought the couple to Mt. Juliet, Sue recalled, and they fell in love with the city and refused to leave. Now he’s always there for her, too, she said, as they both provide dedicated service to WEMA and Rescue 23.
“He’s always there for me,” she said. “If I have a call at 3 a.m., he comes along. If I’ve had a bad call (in the daytime), he meets me at the door with arms wide open.”
The WEMA crews may call her Grandma, Mama Sue, or “our rock,” but the admiration and respect is a mutual thing for their chaplain, Sue Street.
After 10 years with WEMA, she has nothing but praise for the firefighters, medical responders and dispatchers she works with. “I walk among heroes, every day,” Street said. “They inspire me.”
Correspondent Connie Esh may be contacted at email@example.com.