Rocklin Fire volunteer Ken Whitman passes away

Honored with Fire Chief's Legacy Award on eve of his death
By: Jon Brines, Placer Herald correspondent
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In memoriam
A funeral service for Ken Whitman will be held at 1:30 p.m. Saturday at St. Clare Catholic Church, 1950 Junction Ave., Roseville. No reception is planned; burial will be a private family ceremony.

Longtime Rocklin resident and law enforcement professional Ken Whitman remembered the day he wanted to be a firefighter. He said he felt helpless as he watched fire erupt from a house in his neighborhood.

"One house caught fire, then the next house caught fire,” he recalled. “I stood there and stood there and waited for a fire truck. I decided that I want to do something.”

Whitman already had skills as a career police officer and a background at California's Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST). It turned out he made a pretty good volunteer. Even so, as a rookie firefighter, Whitman vividly remembered the intense first call in 1991 at an apartment fire.

"The chief pointed and said, 'Go put that ladder up and cut a hole in the roof.’ I thought, 'Oh my God.’"

At that time Rocklin Fire Capt. Tim Palmer was up there with him.

"He went through the training and he knew what to do,” Palmer remembered. “He cut a perfect hole, just like textbook.”

Former Rocklin Fire Chief Tim Mrozinski (2001-2004) was Whitman's volunteer training officer back when he applied to help out.

"He had the right everything," Mrozinski said. "Ken had a broad enough view in understanding the human aspect of life and he was able to bring that background that he had and actually instill it into our personnel, both volunteer and career firefighters."

While putting out fires on his days off, Whitman's day job at POST put him into the thick of training standards for all of California's law enforcement.

"Ken was like the Energizer bunny,” POST Assistant Deputy Director Dick Reed said. “He was very much a project guy. He was really sharp and very creative."

After the terrorist attacks on 9-11, Whitman developed the guide post study on how to develop regional training facilities for law enforcement. He was the lead on creating the curriculum for the synergy between police and fire after 9-11 for counter terrorism tactics in California, according to Reed.

Whitman, a 21-year veteran, had endured a battle with melanoma and returned home from the hospital early last week to find his fellow firefighters surprised him with an award.

"He's a phenomenal guy," Rocklin Fire Chief James Summers said. "He's organized the annual Santa Claus neighborhood visits, the Easter Egg Hunt, he's been the Firefighter Association president numerous times and he's done research for (the design) of our badges and wrote grants."

On the eve of his passing, with his family, friends and fellow firefighters by his side, Whitman was awarded the Vince Lopez Legacy Award.

"I felt that it was something I could give back to the community and it was easy to do,” Whitman said. “I enjoyed it and it gave me a little different perspective in public safety. I thought it was important to give back to the city when they needed help."

The Legacy Award is the highest Fire Department Achievement Award that can be given out by the fire chief. Whitman expressed humble gratitude as everyone surrounded him for a picture.

"The fire service has been very supportive of anybody who works for it,” he said. “I've had nothing but good luck and help from them when I needed it. They have 50-some members who I consider all of them my friends. They are very, very good at what they do.”

Whitman especially remembered the children he inspired as Santa's helper atop a fire truck, rolling through Rocklin neighborhoods passing candy to the kids with a "Ho, ho, ho."

"It is wonderful. You come into these neighborhoods when it's freezing cold out. The kids are standing out there with their (big) eyes. They say, 'Santa, Santa we love you.’"

Whitman also spearheaded the annual Easter egg hunt at Johnson-Springview Park, where 1,200 children search for 5,800 eggs.

"There are a lot of things we do that we should continue to do, because that's the fabric of the community," Whitman said.

Whitman died in his sleep Oct. 12 just hours after the firefighters made their presentation. He leaves his wife, Mary; children Heather, Thaddeus and John; and five great-grandchildren. His daughter Heather Gendreau especially remembers the stillness after the photos were taken when her father was at the center of a circle of dozens of firefighters, family and friends who looked on him without a word, which projected a quiet satisfaction.

"Even on the most tragic of moments we still have some type of light inside of us,” Gendreau said. “That's what I get from my dad. He was the strength of our family because of his personality and kindness.”

Longtime colleague and friend Dan Moura said Whitman has a legacy.

"He didn't care about the recognition,” he said. “He just cared that the work was being done and the advancements were being made. He made a difference in police and fire service. You don't see that very often. It’s very unusual.”

Whitman balanced the work life and family life, and his son Thaddeus, now a Blackhawk pilot in the military, said his father's most important mantra stays with him.

"We always understood when he was gone (at work), we felt his loyalty and family was important. Being home and being with my kids is more important than anything I do. I got that from him.”