THOMASTON, Maine — Fire Chief Michael Leo has been serving his community for nearly 40 years. Now the town is returning that love with a series of benefits to help him as he battles cancer and prepares for a stem cell transplant.
“I’m just overwhelmed. Some way, I will find a way to say thanks,” Leo said Friday from his office in the fire department.
Leo is a native of neighboring Rockland. His parents operated the IGA on Main Street, where AutoZone is now located, and also the old Crescent Beach Inn in Owls Head that was affectionately referred to as the Tilting Hilton. He moved to Thomaston in 1971 and in 1973 he attended a town meeting when Roy Moss, who operated both the local funeral home and the ambulance service, announced he was going to stop providing ambulance service in the following year.
Leo said he went home and spoke to his wife and they agreed he would get together with other residents to put together a town ambulance service. For the next 12 months, the group met weekly to plan how to start such a service. They met with other communities that had ambulance services, including Rockland. They took training classes and posted fliers around town seeking volunteers.
Leo and the other founding members also went along with Moss on emergency calls to get prepared for their start-up on April 1, 1974.
At first, the single ambulance acquired from Moss was parked in between the town’s fire trucks.
Leo got to meet the fire department crews and in 1977 he was hired to serve as a dispatcher for both the fire and police departments while still running the ambulance service. He joined the fire department as a firefighter in 1980.
He rose up through the ranks and in 2004 he was appointed as the town’s fire chief. At that point he gave up the ambulance part of his service to devote the time to the fire duties.
The commitment to community runs deep in the Leo family. His brother Alan Leo is the ambulance director and emergency services coordinator. Michael’s son Jamie was honored May 14 by the Rockland City Council for 20 years with the fire department. Jamie also is assistant fire chief in Thomaston. Michael’s son Tony is a fire captain in the Thomaston department as well a dispatcher for Knox County Regional Communications Center and a volunteer for the Waldoboro fire department.
“It makes me proud that my sons have followed me in the service to the community,” he said.
He noted that working in the emergency service is not for everyone and there are difficult times. He said the most difficult calls were ones in which children were ill, injured or worse.
“But if we’ve saved a life or saved a house from being destroyed, we’ve done good,” Leo said.
Leo said he began experiencing symptoms last July, including coming down with pneumonia. He recovered from that, but while battling a fire in town in September, he found himself very short of breath and he knew there was a problem. In December he was diagnosed with cancer of the bone marrow. He has undergone chemotherapy and if all goes as planned he will receive the stem cell transplant in August at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.
When he undergoes that procedure he will be in Boston for two-and-a-half to four weeks and then return home and be out of work for three to four more months.
He said the most difficult part of his illness has been the inability to do things himself, including simple things such as mowing the lawn.
Leo said he initially was opposed to any type of benefit being put on for him. He said he has never done his job for recognition or to expect anything in return.
“I don’t expect anything back for being fire chief. My job is to make sure the members are safe, have training and equipment,” Leo said.
He relented only last month because he realized it is something people wanted to do.
A spaghetti dinner and silent auction is scheduled from 4 to 9 p.m. Saturday, June 16, at Oceanside High School West (the former Georges Valley High School) in Thomaston. Donations are requested at $5 for children and $10 for adults for the meal.
Luann Hyler, an organizer of the benefit dinner and friend of Leo, said a dance and more extensive auction is being planned for August.
“He certainly has given his all to the community,” Hyler said. “He’s a wonderful person.”
Leo said he has been moved by the response. While not involved in the fundraisers, he has heard of donations from people he does not even know.
Stickers of fire helmets also are being sold for $1 each. They are being sold at Fresh Off the Farm in Rockport. Wristbands also are available at Fresh Off the Farm for $2 each.
When the stem cell transplant is done in Leo’s bone marrow, his immune system will be lowered significantly and that is why he will be out of work during that period. There also will be monthly trips to Boston for follow-up checks.
Leo said he has kept a good outlook on life since his illness and is taking one day at a time.
Even facing his illness, Leo continues to think about others first.
“When I go to the hospital in Boston and see the children with cancer, I realize there are people who are facing much more than me,” the 62-year-old chief said.