Tom Dickinson, former Minneapolis fire chief, dies at age 78

  • Article by: JOY POWELL , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 21, 2013 - 9:18 PM

Former Mpls. Fire Chief Tom Dickinson

Tom Dickinson — the second-longest-serving fire chief ever in Minneapolis — retired after getting new fire stations and a training facility built, new front-line equipment and more staffing.

He died April 30 at age 78 after nearly 40 years as a firefighter — 15 as chief.

“He loved the Minneapolis Fire Department; he was all about doing whatever he could to make that department the best it could be,” said Dickinson’s son Mark, a St. Paul fire captain. “He had a lot of pride in it.”

Mark and another son, Mike, a Minneapolis deputy fire chief, described their father as an honorable, dedicated man who led the department through changing times. He hired the first women firefighters in 1986 and helped diversify the ranks.

As chief from 1983 through 1998, Dickinson would go to applicants’ homes, even on Sundays, to tell them they were hired. He knew each recruit by name, and one thing about her or him. He was a hardworking, humble man.

“He didn’t want to just be an administrator,” Mark Dickinson said. “You tend to get a lot of guys who get caught up in the politics and the administration part, and they forget about what really goes on, on the street, and that was one thing my dad didn’t want to do. So he always kept that connection.”

Born in Illinois, Tom Dickinson spent nearly his entire life in north Minneapolis. In 1955, he married his sweetheart from Patrick Henry High, Donna Flemming. In 1960, he became the first nonveteran hired by the department, and the newlyweds immediately bought a rambler in the Shingle Creek neighborhood. He was always proud to be a northsider.

Dickinson’s career began on the rescue squad and continued as fire-motor operator, captain, battalion chief and then chief, second in longevity only to Charles Ringer, who retired in 1933.

Dickinson’s early years were spent dousing fires when about 6,000 structures burned yearly in the city — nearly 10 times the number today — along with responding to all kinds of rescues.

His kids often wouldn’t see him come home from 24-hour shifts; they were at school. So he made weekends special, said daughter Patti Granning.

“On a Sunday morning, he would stop at a bakery on the way and bring doughnuts,” she said. “But if he had a fire the night before, he’d come in smelling of a fire.”

His two sons and two daughters would sit around the kitchen table enthralled as their dad told of citizens’ lives saved — and of firefighters lost, for example, in the Old Dutch Food Co. fire, in blazing houses and businesses, or in falls from a ladder or rig.

Tom Dickinson had close calls of his own before firefighters wore air tanks; they’d hold out in the smoke until dizzy. And once, he fell more than 30 feet off a ladder at training.

They’d ride on the tailboards of fire engines without cabovers in their rubber boots with rubber coats flapping, going from one call to the next in subzero temperatures, “but loving every minute of it,” Mark Dickinson said.

Tom Dickinson relished his days as captain at Stations 6 and 7, when he taught himself to cook and became famed for his New York cheesecake. He doted on Dalmatians named Chief and Smoky.

“He loved firefighting, and as you rise up in the ranks, you always miss that,” Mike Dickinson said. “He missed the camaraderie and the thrill. It’s an adrenaline rush going into fires, and they went to a lot of them back then. And you miss that as you move up the ladder.”

Tom Dickinson also served on the firefighter pension board, lobbying at the State Capitol for retirees and widows.

Early this year, he was hospitalized with a rare form of gastric cancer. He fought for months, then returned to his home of more than 50 years. Keeping vigil at his deathbed were his four kids, including daughter Paula Batchelder.

At his May 2 wake, 26 fire engines pulled up to the funeral home. Firefighters came from both sides of the river.

He was preceded in death by his wife, Donna. He is survived by his four children, 13 grandchildren, brother Ernest Dickinson Jr., and sister Donna Rodeghero.

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