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'It has been a journey well worth taking': Indiana firefighter retires after 24 years of service

Sylvia Gardner was one of two women who started at the fire department almost 24 years ago.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The first Black woman to serve with New Albany’s fire department is headed for retirement.

Sylvia Gardner will retire after serving nearly 24 years with the department.

The Louisville native dreamed of becoming a firefighter at the age of five, inspired by her uncle who with the Louisville department when she was a child.

That was when she was told by a grade-school teacher that being a firefighter was a man's profession. But that didn't stop her.

"It was my dream, and I strived to do that," she said.

She applied to be a firefighter with the department at the age of 22 and immediately knew she'd have to be her best in order to achieve her dreams.

"The tests we had to take... I had to do it in the same times as a man," she said. "I did it to show that women could do anything as long as we put our minds to it."

When she got the call that she had passed all the tests required, Gardner said she shed tears of joy and immediately called her parents to tell them the good news.

"That was the proudest moment of my life, that phone call." she said.

'Trailblazer'

Gardner was one of two women who joined the New Albany fire department in 1998.

Tim Kron, who is now the department's deputy chief, was already with the department when Gardner joined. He was with her when she went to her first fire and said that he knew immediately that she would be a good addition to the department.

"She never budge or bail, she never left my side during that fire," he said. "Her first impression was a good one on my part."

Gardner said that it took a while for the other firefighters to warm up to having a woman in the department but quickly proved herself.

"The guys were stand-off-ish at first, but it understandable as a male profession field," she said. "It took a while for us to understand and know each other. But a fire department is like any other family -- you have your ups and your downs." 

 Kron said that the department adjusted to having women on staff and benefitted from the needed diversity. He hopes that Sylvia's story inspires others. 

"She's a trailblazer," he said. "She followed her dreams even when people told her that she couldn't. She's a perfect example that no matter your background if you work hard and apply yourself, you can do whatever you want to do."

A girl from the West End  

After leaving the department, Gardner moved back to the West End in Louisville -- the place where she spent the majority of my life. 

"I moved back because to me, this is me." she said. 

Gardner said one of her biggest hopes for sharing her story is so that other little girls and boys see what she accomplished and are inspired to follow their own dreams. 

"People talk so bad about the West End but we have so much talent here," she said. "We just have to learn to stick together, and when you succeed reach back and bring somebody else up and bring them along... it'll help the community grow." 

Gardner said that her parents had a huge part in her path to becoming a firefighter, with a few detours. 

She said that her parents, especially her mother, were her best friends. When she graduated high school they told her that she could do anything she set her mind to. She wanted to try out for Louisville's department, but they encouraged her to go to college first. 

Then she applied for New Albany. Then she got the call.

"I remember my dad said, 'Baby, that's kind of dangerous," and I told him 'well, there's danger everywhere so I'm going to go after my dream." 

She said that they supported her until the days they died, months apart in 2021. And that changed everything for Gardner. 

Saying Goodbye

Garder lost her mother in December of 2021, her father a few months before that in April.

"I lost them in a matter of months," she said. Their loss took a toll on not only her and her family, but on how she felt she could continue to do her work as a public servant.

"I knew it was my time to leave when they passed," she said. 

"My heart is still with the fire department, my love is still there. But all of me is not there. I can't give them 100 percent because I'm absorbed in my own pain right now. I was always taught to do things at 100 percent and I can't. So I'm bowing our gracefully." 

After 24 years of service, she hopes that she has not only made her fellow firefighters and community proud, but her parents that she believes are still looking over her now. 

"I can hear my dad now say, 'that's my Bug, that's my baby.' Or my mother saying, 'my angel did it." she said. "This is what they strived for me to do, be good at what I've done by serving my community." 

Although she is retiring and hanging up the gear, Kron said that she will always have a place in the New Albany department. 

"She will always be a New Albany firefighter, that name and insignia will always be with her until the day she dies," he said. "She leaves a legacy and we only hope to find others who can carry that on and continue what she's done for this department." 

Gardner said that the department recently hired another woman and she was excited to see that representation continue. She plans on sitting down with her soon, but told WHAS11 what message she'd share with her or any other woman with a dream. 

"Don't let anyone stop you," she said. "Live your dream. If this is what your dream is, always fight for your dream." 

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