As is so often the case, visiting a friend in Colorado back in 1977 is what convinced Rhoda Schleicher she and her husband really belonged here rather than in Ann Arbor, Michigan. With a background in medicinal chemistry, she got a job at the University of Colorado Medical Center.
She was the second female to enter the probe class to be a member of the Evergreen Volunteer Fire Department, something she wanted to do along with her husband; but pregnancy kept her from completing the rigorous training. Instead, she signed up to be an emergency dispatcher, something she could do from home while raising little ones.
Fire and ambulance service were separate then, but dispatchers handled calls for both, serving the 126-square-mile district. The population of Evergreen was fewer than 10,000 then but tripling that decade alone from the 2,700 year-round residents in 1970.
"There were cats in trees, smoke scares from drilling of wells, and welfare check when someone sounded suicidal," she said, explaining that someone from the fire department would be physically sent to talk to the person who was suicidal until someone from the Sheriff's Department could arrive on scene from Golden. "And there were a lot of chimney fires," referring to the many homes and cabins that still used fireplaces to heat their homes.
Six or seven dispatchers covered the responsibilities 24/7, attempting to have two dispatchers on duty at all times. Without the convenience of cell phones, dispatchers had to stay close to their phones at all times. "We couldn't vacuum and hear the phone," Rhoda remembered. "And crying kids were a problem."
Although the emergency calls came through on a dedicated line, it was still a particular challenge with four-party lines for most households until the late 1980s. "One time I had to call another agency for the firefighters on scene. I lifted up the phone and [it was in use] so I calmly said I had a house fire and told her I needed to use the phone. Later she walked over and asked what had been on fire since my house looked fine."
"Since there was nothing listed in the phone book for Evergreen Police or Evergreen town administration, the fire department would get all the weird calls. One time a man called and said he found a peacock and wanted to know if anyone was missing one.... I remembered seeing the ones that were kept at the house across from the entrance to Greystone Ranch. Somehow I got in touch with the people at that house and they got their peacock back!"
"Way back there weren't a lot of street signs, especially in Clear Creek County. We used a fire number system that used a grid so we could pinpoint a house on the map and determine how to get to it. There is a subsdivision up Brook Forest Road where the turn was not well marked by a street sign so we used to say 'go up Brook Forest Road and turn right at the white A-frame.' Then the owners had the nerve to paint it brown so it turned into 'go up Brook Forest Road and turn right at the brown A-frame that used to be white.' Very professional, but people responding got there!"
Rhoda and her husband, Bill, retired from the fire department in 1997 after 20 years of service and still hold the designation of being the only married couple to have served 20 years together. Rhoda and Carol Small were the first two women to retire from the department. "The Fire Department was a huge part of our lives," she remembered fondly. Use of volunteer dispatchers continued until 19__ when the 911 dispatching center was installed at the station in Bergen Park.
Rhoda used to be a Master Gardener, reflecting on times gone by when wildlife was not as prevalent and fencing was not necessary.
Most of her activities have gone hand in hand with those of her family, staying involved with the kids' activities long after the kids were gone. She coached middle school ski team for 13 years at Clear Creek High School and still coaches middle school volleyball after 18 years.
When her daughter was active with Westernaires at the Jefferson County Fairgrounds, Rhoda took an interest in working with the large draft horses, starting by harnessing the team. With the guidance of more experienced people, she learned to drive teams of four draft horses pulling a wagon and is now teaching others to drive teams with six ponies.
While her daughter has graduated from Westernaires (it's geared for age 9 through graduation from high school), Rhoda still commits to helping every Monday evening from 6-10 pm, at spa day for the horses every other month, and with parades and shows, some of which have involved overnights out of state. She drives a semi carrying necessary equipment.
There are approximately 1,100 boys and girls in Westernaires program – about 300 new each year – open to members of any tax-paying family in Jefferson County. The program, almost entirely dependent on volunteers, started back in the 1940s when many would ride their horses to the fairgrounds. Nowadays, participants cannot wear bluejeans; they must wear uniforms, Rhoda notes. They are graded on deportment and must pass both written and physical testing. "It's militaristic," she says, adding that no piercings are allowed.
Participants learn trick riding, "liberty" bareback, "Roman" standing atop one of two ponies and eventually graduating to full-size horses, driving chariots with four ponies, and circus-horse acrobatics on the backs of horses. In addition, they become proficient with bull whips, ropes and lassos.
Anyone can learn to ride during the week, according to Rhoda, who explains that parents who volunteer as instructors are available to teach, providing horses as well. The cost is just $10 each time. There are others like Rhoda who volunteer but don't have kids in the program -- just an interest in working with horses.
In addition to still working as in pharmaceutical research at the Anschutz Center (formerly the University of Colorado Medical Center), Rhoda finds time to volunteer as a phlebotomist at the 9Health Fair each year. If you're one of the lucky ones to have her draw blood, tell her "thanks" for all she's done for this community over the years!