Kathy Wilkerson, New Orleans’ first female firefighter, died Saturday in Eau Claire, Wis., from complications of cancer, the New Orleans Fire Department reported.
She was 57.
Those who worked with Wilkerson, who joined the department in 1992 and served until 1997, agreed Saturday that her hard work and dedication was an inspiration to them.
District Chief Terry Hardy Sr., who was in the same recruit class as Wilkerson, remembered her as a caring person with remarkable persistence.
Hardy said when she signed up for the department at 37 years of age, Wilkerson was barely able to do a few push-ups, falling far short of the 35 required. After months of work, however, she passed the physical strength tests.
“It brought joy to me to see someone work that hard to try to achieve something,” Hardy said.
Edgar Journee, who worked with Wilkerson for five years at the Engine 20 station in Algiers, said he remembers her “bubbly personality and willingness to help others.”
He said she would often lend a hand washing the station’s fire truck, even though it wasn’t her responsibility
Journee said that Wilkerson had two daughters, and it was providing for them that motivated her to become a firefighter.
Hardy said that he thought that Wilkerson would have likely advanced through the ranks of the department if she had stayed longer. He said that the department currently has seven female firefighters. Three of the women are firefighters, two are operators and two hold the rank of captain.
Hardy added that although it was tough for Wilkerson to break the gender barrier at the New Orleans Fire Department, most firefighters accepted her because of her ability to do her job well.
He remembered once seeing a group of firefighters diligently at work and not realizing Wilkerson was one of them until she took her helmet off.
Journee agreed that Wilkerson’s work ethic was impressive.
“She was a good person, a hard worker and she did her job on the fire scene,” Journee said. “She did everything that was asked for.”