At first Buffalo Grove Lt. Wendill Bills thought his boss, Chief Terry Vavra, was kidding when he said he was nominated for Firefighter of the Year.
"I figured he was pulling another joke. He's good for that. He thinks he's a jokester," the Wauconda resident told the audience at Monday's Buffalo Grove village board meeting.
But if there was any doubt, the reality hit when the 30-year veteran of the village fire service received a standing ovation from the crowd after his eloquent speech, which was periodically punctuated with pauses of emotion.
Bills is the ultimate team player, as indicated by his remarks about the award prior to the meeting. "It's great, but when it's all said and done, the award is given to me only because of the work that we all did together as a group."
It had been a dream since age 5 to be a fireman. He attended Lockport high school and became a firefighter at Argonne National Laboratory. When he was laid off, he went back to school and became a paramedic.
He applied for a job in Buffalo Grove and Chief Wayne Winter "saw enough in me, along with the police and fire commission, to hire me."
Bills said he asked Winter, "Are any other minorities working in the village? And he said, 'Yes. But you're the first one for the fire department.' I paused for a second and I said, 'Is that a good thing or a bad thing?' He said, 'No, that's a good thing. Seriously, it's a good thing.'"
He began working in the village Oct. 19, 1983.
"I have been thankful ever since," he said.
Buffalo Grove Rotary Club President Pamela Kibbons presented the award to Bills, as his wife Kim, son Spencer and daughter Kiara watched. Rotary will donate $250 to Bills' favorite charity, The Kidney Foundation, while another $250 will be given to the Rotary Foundation.
Vavra called Bills a dedicated officer, teacher and mentor within the department. "Wendill has used his knowledge and his experience and shared it with others to make us a smarter department," he said.
Bills said that people dial 911 when they are at their most desparate.
"When we arrive at their house, we don't arrive as an individual. We arrive as a company. At that point, we have to be at our best, because you're at your worst. ... I hope that in the 30 years I have been here, I have exhibited that. If I haven't, you have my apologies. But I hope that I have done that."