Shelby Township Fire Chief Gene Shepherd is living proof of his personal mantra: Finish what you start.
On Dec. 7, 1987, Shepherd was 31 when he took a job as an EMS medic and firefighter in Shelby Township.
“It’s pretty easy (to remember the date) when you get hired on the anniversary of Pearl Harbor. It’s like when you get married you never forget the day you were hired,” said Shepherd.
On Dec. 7, 2012, 25 years later—to the date—Shepherd said he plans on retiring from the Shelby Township Fire Department.
“In life in general: you start something and try to get through it. I don’t like leaving things open ended,” he said.
And in Shepherd fashion, the chief is doing just that
Despite being diagnosed in 2010 with clear-cell sarcoma, a rare form of cancer, the 56-year-old chief hasn’t let crushing physical pain, a cadaver bone transplant, numerous rounds of radiation and chemotherapy stand in his way of running the department.
“It helps being here and dealing with the public, and it gives me structure. I hate to be sitting around the house thinking about it,” said Shepherd. “That goes back to my desire to finish projects.”
A sunny spring morning matched Shepherd’s disposition when the chief told Patch that he has finished the final rounds of chemotherapy and radiation and is now working with the Karmanos Cancer Institute.
“Three days before Christmas (2011) my oncologist said there was nothing he could do and that I should try alternative trial drugs,” Shepherd told Patch. “Now we’re into the trial stuff."
While waiting in the lobby at a doctor’s office for test results from a routine physical, Shepherd said he felt a dime-sized lump in his arm.
The cancerous lump was removed and replaced with a cadaver bone, and the chief was given a clear bill of health.
Several months later, severe back pain led doctors to find a cancerous spot on Shepherd’s ribs, and then a few months later, there were several more in his back and hips.
Three rounds of radiation and two bouts with chemotherapy couldn’t kick the rare form of cancer.
“My family has always been supportive. They’re doing good—not always—but good. It gets to be a reality after a while,” he said as he tried hard to fight back tears. “They know there is no magic pill and you prepare. You get things ready, and you do what you have to do.”
For Shepherd, the most healing medicine has been the overwhelming support of his family, friends and faith.
“Being in pain quite a bit, and having people from my church (Cornerstone Baptist) and from here step up has helped out,” said Shepherd, adding that many of his firefighters, and even members of neighboring departments have offered to help him out with household chores that have now proven to be difficult.
In the Beginning
Does a passionate firefighter who climbs the ladder to chief grow up with an innate fascination for fire trucks? Not necessarily.
Shepherd told Patch that his mother still laughs when she tells stories about him as a boy growing up on the west side of Detroit, and being horrified when he heard screaming fire truck sirens pass.
After graduating from Center Line High School in 1974, Shepherd worked as a mechanic, and volunteered at the Center Line Fire Department.
“I liked doing EMS and being a paramedic,” he said.
In 1987 Shepherd took his first full-time fire firefighting job with Shelby Township.
“I don’t think I’ve forgotten where I came from. At least I hope,” he said.
During his tenure with Shelby, Shepherd said he's most proud of his 15-plus years as the EMS Operations coordinator, implementing new training techniques as the chief of training and instituting an EMS billing plan for the department that has generated a lot of revenue.
“It makes money and helps offset the cost of the fire department here today,” he said.
Since Shepherd was promoted to chief in 2009, he said he has strengthened communication with the Board of Trustees and built a great rapport for the fire department.
“There is an open line of dialogue between us. I’ve had a great term of working with them—so far,” he said smiling as he knocked on his wooden desk.
But in all seriousness, Shepherd noted the township has been very supportive of him, his endeavors as chief, and in his personal life.
Somewhere in between running a fire department and earning the respect of more than 60 firefighters on the Shelby Fire Department, Shepherd married his wife, Lee, and had two children: Robin, 30 and Amy 26. Now, he’s basking in the glory of being a granddad six times over.
“They’re doing good—they really are. They have their days,” he said of his family.
Shepherd told Patch it’s important to him to share his trials and triumphs with the public because he’s a public figure and working through problems together make it easier on him.
“I’ve got some great friends,” he said with a smile on his face.