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Fire still burns for Lakewood Ranch resident

Don O'Leary, 85, retires from his role as a fire commissioner.

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  • | 8:30 a.m. August 21, 2019
Don O'Leary chats with East Manatee Fire Rescue Chief Lee Whitehurst after finishing his last meeting. Whitehurst said O'Leary  will challenge you to get something done if he feels it is=s important.
Don O'Leary chats with East Manatee Fire Rescue Chief Lee Whitehurst after finishing his last meeting. Whitehurst said O'Leary will challenge you to get something done if he feels it is=s important.
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At 85 years young, Lakewood Ranch’s Don O’Leary has done many things in his life, but quitting was never one of them.

Starting at age 25, he battled blazes as a firefighter with the New York City Fire Department. There, he was twice buried beneath rubble while fighting fires, and he even delivered two babies while on duty.

After moving to Edgewater in Lakewood Ranch in 1998, O’Leary began lobbying Lakewood Ranch’s developer, Schroeder-Manatee Ranch, to build fire stations within its Lakewood Ranch property. And for the past eight years, he has served as a fire commissioner for the East Manatee Fire Rescue District, which spans the greater Lakewood Ranch area.

So it was not easy for him, when at he end of the Aug. 19 East Manatee Fire Rescue District meeting, O’Leary tendered his resignation.

The decision was tough, but because of ongoing problems with his eyes, he said he has had difficulty driving and reading through the stacks of paperwork required for meetings.

“It’s very hard for him to do it,” said Audrey O’Leary, his wife of 66 years. “He’s 100% [firefighter.] All I know is he loves the job so much. It’s been very, very difficult for him to let go.”

Don O’Leary started as a firefighter when he was 25 and for the next 30 years worked in a job he loved.

“I can’t think of anything I didn’t like,” he said. “Every day was a surprise.”

Like the day a taxi pulled up at his New York fire station with a woman in labor. The baby was already crowning, so O’Leary ordered his fellow firefighters to grab blankets and towels, and he delivered the baby himself about four minutes later.

Then there was the time he climbed to the roof of a neighbor’s house and busted through it, so he could rescue the people trapped inside.

He started his career in Brooklyn on Engine Co. 243 before being transferred to the 54 truck in the Bronx, which ran 7,000 calls per year. He was there for 12 years, and at the end his doctor said he had been “carried out too many times” and ordered him to be transferred to a quieter firehouse.

The 151 truck in Queens only ran 400 calls a year and was in a more residential area, so that’s where he went.

“It was to keep me out of trouble,” O’Leary said.

Still, a year later, he responded to a fire in a supermarket. While inside working the fire, the roof collapsed. After those injuries, the doctor ordered his retirement.

O’Leary protested but did retire, which ended his 30-year career.

“I’m not beaten up anymore,” he said. “I’m just getting old.”

When he and Audrey moved to Edgewater in 1998, O’Leary knew Lakewood Ranch was destined to grow, and he worried about the lack of fire stations. He lobbied Rex Jensen, now SMR’s CEO, and then-CEO John Clarke for fire stations on the Ranch. The first station, Station 4, went up at 9136 Town Center Parkway in 2002 after SMR donated the land for it.

East Manatee Fire Rescue District Chief Lee Whitehurst met with him in 2000. Whitehurst said O’Leary couldn’t help but get involved.

“Don became our unofficial liaison with Lakewood Ranch and the developer, Schroeder-Manatee Ranch,” Whitehurst said. “As [Lakewood Ranch] was growing, we were growing, too. Don was instrumental in our acquisition of land from SMR for Station 5 off Lorraine Road, as well as the site of our headquarters on Lakewood Ranch Boulevard.”

O’Leary was appointed as a fire commissioner in 2011.

Dick Jacobs, who served alongside O’Leary as a fire commissioner for seven years and now will be appointed to fill O’Leary’s seat, said O’Leary has always been focused on improving the community.

“If you have a problem, he will get it solved,” Jacobs said. “He loves Lakewood Ranch. He loves Manatee County. He loves the fire service.”

“He was a good advocate not just for Lakewood Ranch but the whole district,” Commissioner Garry Lawson said. “I’m going to miss him.”

O’Leary and his wife said they aren’t sure what he will do now.

“God only knows,” Audrey O’Leary said. “It’s going to be hard [for him].”


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