“He was a helpful and loyal friend. I could always count on him for whatever I needed. I’m going to miss him so much. Sometimes you question the good people taken away from you early and it just makes you question everything,” says Madison firefighter Brandon Jones about his close friend Richard Garner Jr., a Madison Fire Department firefighter and paramedic who passed away last month at the young age of 29. “I guess what I learned from this is that life is short and you need to take care of yourself and your families. We as firefighters are not invincible, so we really need to keep an eye on each other.
“He was our little brother,” Jones adds. “As big as he was, he was our little brother. He had such a cool, carefree attitude. Happy-go-lucky. He was a big teddy bear. As large as he was, he was harmless … and he loved everybody.”
Richard Garner Jr. died on Easter morning – just four days before his 30th birthday – shortly after finishing a 48-hour shift on the job. Garner had a long and stressful two days and by the time he finished his shift at 7 a.m. on Sunday morning, he had responded to 19 emergency calls.
“He had a lot of stressful calls that weekend – a couple stabbings, a shooting, he had to deliver twins. It was an incredibly stressful workload,” close friend and fellow Madison firefighter Doug Johnson tells Madison365.
Both Johnson and Jones have been struggling this past month trying to come to grips with the loss of their very close friend, their “little brother” as they refer to him. Garner’s death has rocked the entire Madison Fire Department and has been felt throughout the whole community and state. Hundreds of firefighters and police officers from across the state gathered at Garner’s memorial service last month including Governor Scott Walker and Mayor Paul Soglin. A couple weeks later, Jones and Johnson flew out to Pasadena, Calif., Garner’s hometown, to attend funeral services there.
“We got to meet more of his family members and see the town and the people he grew up with and around,” Johnson says. “It was important for us to be there for his funeral.
“The Pasadena firefighters were top-notch. We want to thank them,” he adds. “They helped us out with whatever we needed around town.”
Jones and Johnson are chatting with Madison365 from Garner’s apartment on Madison’s east side, just a stone’s throw from the East side Madison Great Dane Restaurant, as the two firefighters organize Garner’s possessions. It’s still a little weird for them to be at their good friend’s house without him here.
“It’s definitely weird being here,” Johnson says. “When we first got here, the day after he passed, it was really weird. We wanted to tidy up the place because his mother was going to come to town and stay here.
“Being in his car was weird without him. It was eerie. Sitting in the driver’s seat instead of the passenger’s seat was weird,” Johnson adds. “And then we get back here and it’s an apartment set up for somebody to come back. The humidifier is on. A house full of stuff and no person … it’s a really weird thing. It’s definitely was weirder at first than it is now. But I still get these waves that come back to me that’s like: Is Rick really gone?”
“It didn’t seem like it could possibly be true”
April 1 – both Easter Sunday and April Fools this year – was a terrible day for Johnson and Jones.
“We both got calls from his phone. Doug missed his and I answered the call and it was a lady on the phone who was like, ‘Hey, I need to know what station Richard Garner works at. He had a seizure.’ The way she was talking didn’t make any sense and I was confused,” Jones says. “Then I thought, ‘Oh, yeah. It’s April Fools.’ And if you knew Garner, you knew he’d try to come at you with a joke. I kinda brushed it off. Who would think you’d get that kind of news from this guy? He was perfectly healthy. There’s no reason to think that he was sick.”
“Rick was a young man who loved life, loved this job and our people and loved his family. I have never met someone that could have an impact on this job in such a short amount of time. He really was the epitome of what we in the fire service call our brotherhood and sisterhood. I will miss him dearly.”
―Mahlon Mitchell, president of the Professional Firefighters of Wisconsin
Johnson later found out the tragic news of Garner’s death and pulled Jones aside and gave me the news.
“Mahlon [Mitchell] called to tell me what happened, too. Rick had passed away,” Jones says. “I didn’t believe it. I asked him a few times: Are you f*cking with me? And he said, I’m sitting here at Fire #1 and if somebody is messing with us, somebody is in serious trouble.’
“I was shocked and in disbelief,” Jones adds. “Even when we heard it from the highest authorities in the department, it still didn’t make sense. It didn’t seem like it could possibly be true. No way.”
Mahlon Mitchell, the president of the Professional Firefighters of Wisconsin and currently campaigning across the state of Wisconsin as a Democratic gubernatorial candidate, could not say enough kind things about Garner when reached.
“Rick was a young man who loved life, loved this job and our people and loved his family,” Mitchell tells Madison365. “I have never met someone that could have an impact on this job in such a short amount of time. He really was the epitome of what we in the fire service call our brotherhood and sisterhood.
“I will miss him dearly,” he adds.
“All of us in Class 1 were tight”
Garner, Johnson and Jones all came up through the ranks together in the Madison Fire Department Recruit Training Academy. “We were in Class 1. Chief [Steven A.] Davis’s first class as fire chief,” Johnson says. “So we had a special bond.”
“I met him for the first time when we got fitted for our gear,” Jones chimes in. “He was this big old dude – 6’5”, 280, give or take a few pounds. I remember coming back and talking to my wife about this big dude from California who plays football.
“A couple weeks into the academy, I remember he drove me to lunch. I got hired with no experience and no background and he was telling me how grateful and thankful I should be for having this job. So he was really rubbing me the wrong way the first time I met him,” Jones adds, laughing. “Who is this guy and why is he telling me all this? But he motivated me to do the best I could do. I ended up getting MVP of the class. I have to thank him for that.”
Jones and Garner were friends but they didn’t get super-close until they went to medic school together in 2016. “I saw him every day – good or bad. We studied together and spent a lot of time together,” Jones remembers. “From there, we both went to teach CPR at the Emergency Education Center. Right before he passed, we had just finalized our plans to start at CPR business where we would go out and teach at health clubs and schools. He was really, really excited about that.”
Johnson also met Garner in the Madison Fire Department Recruit Training Academy. “When we finished the Academy, we were both on the same shift so we’d go out before and after the shift. I really got to know him well and did a lot together,” Johnson says.
Garner was one of the groomsmen in Johnson’s wedding when he got married last year.
“We became really tight. All of us in class 1 were tight,” Johnson says.
“We interacted a lot,” Jones adds. “He would come over to my house, pick up my daughter and throw her around. I’d always be telling him, ‘Don’t drop her!’ He loved kids because he was a big kid.”
The men played basketball and softball together. They participated in community activities together and went out together. The three of them were part of the Sable Flames Second Alarm Scholarship Dance committee where they organized the huge fundraiser that raised scholarship money for students in need.
Jones says that Garner’s second passion was motorcycles.
“Rick bought a [Harley-Davidson] Road Glide like two years ago. He put so much money into it and he had so much pride,” Jones says. “He couldn’t wait to ride it. You’d see this big 6’5” dude on this Roll Glide with a flat brim hat. He was kind of an anomaly. He had an awesome sound system on it, too.
“It wasn’t until I went to visit his family down in Pasadena, California, that I realized that Pasadena has a really big motorcycle culture and community and so he was just kind of extending that out here in Wisconsin,” Jones adds. “That’s why he was so into customizing his bike. He loved to ride his bike. And you could always hear him before you saw him.”
“He put a lot of work into that bike,” Johnson adds. “But he put a lot of work into every single thing he did. You should have seen some of the woodworking this guy was doing. He bought all kinds of tools for that. His plan was to make all of this furniture. That was the next thing he was going to do. I’m telling you, if he got into something a little bit, he got into it a lot.
“He was an active guy. If he wanted to get something done, he got it done. He didn’t waste any time,” Johnson adds.
“His passion for firefighting rubs off on everybody else”
Johnny Winston Jr., division chief of organization and community liaison for the Madison Fire Department and a Madison firefighter since 1996, knew Garner even before he was on the Madison Fire Department when he was an intern at Maple Bluff Fire Department.
“I would say that I recruited him to MFD but that would not be accurate given that I know that his goal was to be a City of Madison firefighter,” Winston tells Madison, smiling. “But I still used to tease him all the time, ‘You know I got you this job. I introduced you to the Fire Chief.’ I did introduce him to Chief Davis who, at the time, was a division chief and shortly after that would become Fire Chief.
“One of the great things I will always take away from Rick’s life is not only how passionate he was for the fire service, but for life in general,” Winston adds.
Winston remembers when Southside Raiders football coach Isadore Knox asked him to come and teach the coaches CPR. “At the time, I knew CPR, but I didn’t know how to teach it all,” Winston remembers. “Rick steps up and says, ‘Hey, I’ll do it.’ I just happened to drive over one day and I’m watching him teach CPR to all of the [Southside Raider] coaches. I thought to myself, ‘That’s really cool.’ Later on, he approaches me and says, ‘Hey, chief. I want to buy all of their [CPR] cards for them.’
“There were like 10-12 coaches! He paid for them all,” Winston adds. “That’s just who Rick was. And there are so many stories like that with him.”
Winston says that he thinks about Garner all the time.
“I miss him a lot. Twenty-nine-years old is just so young,” Winston says. “Too young. Gone way too soon.
“I’m one of the old guys now. Rick, Doug, Brandon, they are all part of the young black firefighters doing their thing … moving us forward,” he adds. “Rick was a big part of that. Very big part of that. He was a co-recruiter for the Fire Department, the chairperson. He did a lot in his young life.
Winston was impressed with Garner’s passion for firefighting and says that that passion just rubbed off on everybody else.
“He was just a really, good young man. I really enjoyed working with him and just being around him,” Winston says. “His loss has been very impactful. I know for me, I’m done crying … now it’s time to live up to his memory. Get out there and help people and live life to the fullest.”
Creating a lifelong tribute to Richard Garner
The firefighters want to live up to Garner’s memory by doing something very special for Garner. They are still figuring out exactly what they will do. It could be several things.
“We’re thinking about it. It’s been a whirlwind four weeks. We haven’t really had a chance to take a breath yet and to really think about what we want to do for Rick,” Johnson says. “A lot of people have a lot of ideas.
“We will definitely do something … the question is what. We’ll figure it out,” Johnson adds.
“There are already things in work. Station 8 made helmet stickers and car stickers in his honor,” Jones says. “As far as the Sable Flames, we had thoughts about making wristbands. I’d like to do something for his birthday every year – a big birthday party.
“His best friend is going to ride his bike out to California in the middle of July and they will do a fundraiser around that and present that money as a scholarship for somebody who wants to be a firefighter,” Jones adds.
The firefighters say that they’ve given a lot of thought to having a Rick Garner Scholarship.
“We think it would be based upon community service because he did so much for the community,” Jones says. “There are a lot of possibilities. But, right now, this past month has been such a whirlwind and we’re still trying to finish everything up. Once that’s done, we’ll really put in some thought process on how we can honor him.”
Johnson and Jones say that they just want the greater community to know about Garner – both the firefighter and the man.
“He loved his job, man,” Jones says. “He was very proud of what he did. He loved being a firefighter and he was not bashful about letting everybody know.”
“He was very loud. He was very talkative … but he always wanted to be very helpful to people in any way he could. If he overheard you talking about something and you needed help, he would go figure it out for you,” Johnson says. “His personal life was all about helping other people.
“Everybody knew him. You can’t forget him. It was his size and his personality that you couldn’t forget,” Johnson adds. “There are those people in your life that say, ‘See you later!’ and you never saw that person again. Rick was a person you’d always see again. Everybody always remembers him. He left a good impression on everybody he met.”
“Everybody liked him. It was all good memories,” Jones chimes in. “He made other people happy.”
Johnson says that Garner was one of the most selfless individuals he had ever met.
“I don’t know if people could really understand or would really even know,” Johnson says. “When I say selfless, everything was about other people. He never even took a vacation for himself. He would have gotten no joy out of that because it would have been a week not doing something for somebody else.”
“He gave his life doing things for other people,” Jones adds. “The type of legacy you leave in life is all of the people you have positively impacted. Rick impacted an incredible amount of people in his 29 years.”