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March 21, 2006

Your Weekly Reeder: A fine day in J’town

Around 9:30 Sunday morning, only 12 hours or so after Jeffersontown High had won the Boys State High School Basketball Tournament in Lexington’s Rupp Arena, Capt. Bill Howard of the J’town Fire Department was in the firehouse kitchen, fixing egg-and-sausage biscuits for his men as he awaited The Call.

It had been a memorable weekend for Howard and the 60 or so other full-time members of the J’town Fire Department. On Friday afternoon, they had helped root the Chargers to 60-54 win over Shelby County in the State Tournament quarterfinals. But only a few hours later, they had forgotten the game because of the biggest fire anybody could remember.

Breaking out at a warehouse on 11th and Zane in downtown Louisville, the fire spread rapidly into a five-alarm blaze so huge and frightening that several fire departments from around the county were needed to get it under control.

The J’town department wasn’t asked to send its yellow trucks to the warehouse, because it’s not part of the mutual-aid agreement that was in effect for that location.

“So we just had to watch it on TV like everyone else,” said Capt Howard.
It was impossible to tell from his facial expression or his voice inflections how he felt about not being a part of that action. A job is a job, you know. But it was different with the basketball team. That’s a matter of heart and pride and community.

“I went to the game last night and I took my son with me,” Howard said. “I felt like it was good for him to get the exposure. Winning a state championship is a dream, but it’s an attainable dream, no matter where you’re from.”

The firehouse sits just off the town square, only a couple of miles from the high school, which is located hard by the railroad tracks on Old Six Mile Lane. The home of the new state champs has an enrollment of 1,032, and is a magnet school for vocational education programs.

About a third of the J’town firefighters attended J’town High. Many still work the games in Raymond Adams Gymnasium. Capt. Howard graduated in 1987.
“We’ve done well over the years in baseball and softball,” he said, “and back in the ’70s, we won some state band championships. But you never think about a school like Jeffersontown getting the kids to win a championship in football or basketball. That’s for St. Xavier and Trinity and Male. The big schools.”

Although it’s a part of Metro Louisville, J’town also is sort of an island unto itself. It still has a personality of its own, and the feel of a small community like the ones all around Kentucky that have won state high school basketball championships over the last 75 years.

On the day after the final game, when the new champs come home, it’s traditional in Kentucky for the local fire department to meet them at the county line and let the players climb on the trucks for a triumphant ride, sirens blaring and horns honking, through the town and to the school.

So in the giddy moments after J’town had defeated Apollo of Owensboro, 61-48, in Saturday night’s championship game, Capt. Howard gave his cell number to an assistant coach and told him to call when the team was on the way home so the fire department could meet them on I-64 inside the county line.

A few minutes after 10 a.m. Sunday, the egg-and-sausage biscuits were gone and the firefighters were back at their duty stations. Some read newspaper stories about the championship game or the fire that was still smoldering downtown. At one point someone mentioned “Big George” Skinner, a volunteer fireman for almost 30 years who also works security and helps with the football team at J’town High.

You could bet that on this quiet Sunday morning, nobody in J’town was happier than Big George. Not even Ceedrick “Tough Guy” Ware, who celebrated his selection as tournament MVP by waving his trophy at his mom, Tonya, who had been released from a 10-day hospital stay just in time to make the final game.

The Call came early in the afternoon, and the yellow trucks went to I-64 at the Blankenbaker exit to greet the team and escort it home. The champs arrived at the school just before 2:30 p.m., the big trophy among its baggage. It was a fine day to be from J’town. They’ll be talking about it at the firehouse for years to come.