Harper College fire science instructor stepping down after 42 years

Richard Keyworth made a promise.

He vowed never to bring a real Christmas tree into his family's home. At 71, the retired Elk Grove Village firefighter has stuck to his pledge, a way to cope with the memories of a fast-moving fire that killed a mother, father and their three children in a one-story home on Christmas morning.

All these years later, the details are hazy for Keyworth, who was pulling hoses at the scene of the early 1970s fire. The culprit was either a faulty plug or lights that sparked the dry needles on a real Christmas tree.

But Keyworth does remember what wasn't there: smoke detectors.

He would later dedicate the rest of his career to teaching hundreds of aspiring firefighters about the prevention side of the job.

For 42 years Keyworth has navigated the highly technical world of building codes and inspections as an instructor in Harper College's Fire Science program. He is stepping down from the position Nov. 1, though he still plans to keep lecturing and writing for trade publications.

“I've had the opportunity to educate and train, I'm told, hundreds, if not thousands of people,” said Keyworth, who also taught classes on fire investigation and hazardous materials. “When I see people today as fire chiefs and fire officers doing the job, there's a personal sense of satisfaction. They're my legacy.”

Wheeling Fire Chief Keith MacIsaac studied under Keyworth fresh out of high school in 1976.

“It was still a very seat-of-your-pants profession at the time, and Dickie was pretty cutting edge,” MacIsaac said.

Keyworth, who wears a cowboy hat, shiny belt buckle and boots, is still the larger-than-life personality who kept students interested in an animated classroom, MacIsaac said.

“There are some people that just go through the motions, but Dick is very passionate,” MacIsaac said.

Keyworth grew up in Itasca, and chalks up his career path to visiting a firehouse around the corner from his grandparents' place in Chicago. He had breakfasts and lunches with the firefighters who “adopted” him, and their battalion chief gave the youngster a tour of other Chicago stations.

“For a 10-year-old kid, I died and went to heaven,” Keyworth said.

He studied at College of DuPage, briefly volunteered with the Itasca department and, in 1969, joined Elk Grove Village, where he would rise to lieutenant. He also was one of the investigators to link the 1982 deaths of seven people to Tylenol capsules tainted with cyanide — a notorious cold case in the suburbs.

Despite the tragedies, he's an approachable, “gentle giant,” says Sam Giordano, who oversees Harper's program. Keyworth makes a point of distilling textbook lessons through his own experiences, Giordano said.

Students “love that's not a traditional type of class where its death by PowerPoint,” Giordano said.

Since joining Harper in 1972, Keyworth has managed to keep up with a demanding learning curve. In the early days, Keyworth's fire protection manual stood less than 3 inches thick. Today, the handbook comes in a volume of books.

“He doesn't allow himself to get rusty,” Giordano said.

Keyworth began thinking about retirement two semesters ago when he taught the grandson of a former student.

“I want them to be professional in whatever they do,” Keyworth said of his graduates. “Even if they don't become a fireman, take pride in your work.”

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