I first met Dori Wallace at her farm on a cold November night under unusual circumstances—a friend connected me with her when I was trying to find a home for a rather wild stray cat that I had become fond of, before the winter got too wintry. As I drove through the woods toward her farm in Butler, with a newly neutered Will Feral in a crate in the back seat, I started regretting my decision to drive to a stranger’s home in the dark in the middle of nowhere, alone.
My anxieties eased as I pulled up to a charming, well-lit farmstead with horses grazing along the fence, and found Dori waiting for me. She took me into the stables and showed me the cozy heated tack room that contained a large cage which would be Will Feral’s new residence for a few weeks while he got acclimated—the room had a cat door so that the handful of cats on the property could come in for food and warmth whenever they need it. Then we got to talking.
“You live in Mt. Lebanon? I am from there. I was actually Mt. Lebanon’s first female firefighter!” she exclaimed.
Without missing a beat, I asked, “Can I interview you for Mt. Lebanon Magazine?!”
Dori agreed and went on to tell me all sorts of interesting stories. She talked about responding to the large fire at the Lebanon Shops in the late ’70s. She also mentioned that her maiden name is Haller, the family which I knew to be instrumental in founding St. Bernard Church in 1919, so we chatted for a while about the church.
When I went in to work the next day, I emailed Chief Nick Sohyda to confirm that what she told me—that she was Lebo’s first woman firefighter—was accurate. And it was.
Then I set up the official interview. Please enjoy the highlights in a Q&A below.
Tell us a little about yourself.
I graduated from Mt. Lebanon High School in ’68. I was a member of the Aqua Club—that’s that swimming team. I even still have my old Aqua Club jacket! I grew up on Moffett Street.
I went to college and dropped out after two years. I was an airline hostess briefly—didn’t like that. I did a little modeling—didn’t like that. I often say that if you’d given me a million dollars, I probably would have complained that it wasn’t in small change. It was one of those teenage things. I actually took a job at [a hospital] as a nurse’s aide, and within a week applied to nursing school [at Washington Hospital School of Nursing]. Then worked as a nurse for two years, then came back and went to anesthesia school.
That’s when I met a couple of the guys from the fire department, and they conned me into joining. Well not “conned,” but you know what I mean … I think people who do that sort of thing have a need to be needed. And I don’t know, I don’t want to say an adrenaline-type need also, but there IS some excitement associated with being a first responder, working in the operating room, doing the anesthesias I do. And being a firefighter. They are all somewhat similar, I think, emotionally. If that makes any sense?
Why did you become a Mt. Lebanon firefighter?
They suggested [that I become a firefighter] and it sounded like it would be kind of fun. It was something that I’d obviously never done, never really thought of. So I did. For a little over a year in 1977.
Tell us about the fire at the Lebanon Shops.
I was actually living at home briefly because I was in between apartments, and when the [alarm] tones went out, I got up and got dressed and was leaving my bedroom and my dad was there and he said, “You’re not going out. This is no time of day for a young woman to be going out and running around town!” “Dad, I’m a firefighter! I’m not going out running around, I’m going to a fire!” It was so funny, you know? Because I think he was probably proud of the things I did, as long as I did them within reasonable hours. I still laugh about it.
Several fire companies came to it … It was my first big fire, so I sort of just tagged along with everybody … We were actually up on top of the roof, trying to ventilate, and the roof got spongy—its about the only way I can describe it. Kind of like, wavy. And I always say my feet were very smart because they knew right away that we were in big trouble. I ran back to the side of the building and one of the other firefighters said “ladies first.” And I said “no arguments here.” And slid down the ladder. Obviously to safety on the ground.
It was interesting because there was a lot of smoke. It was freezing cold. I remember when the sun finally came up and when looking around, the fire trucks were just white from ice with the spray of the hoses. And you saw what the hoses actually look like—they were frozen. They looked like a big spider that had been all twisted up. And they actually ended up sending them back to the stations on a flatbed—because they couldn’t roll them up—for them to thaw … I remember the medics would occasionally pull somebody [away from firefighting] and say “you have to get in the ambulance to warm up,” because with the spray, your coat froze. I mean, if you stood in one place for so long, it was that cold … that fire is what cemented my love for firefighting. It was just very interesting and stimulating. The cold part, I could have done without.
Were there any other fire calls that you responded to that really stick out in your mind?
I remember there was one, it was up by Inglewood somewhere but I don’t remember the street, and it was in an attached garage. We went up and sort of walked around the rafter-type area, around a hole that burned through, and into where the garage was to put out the fire. And as we were backing out, I stepped in the hole. One of the guys grabbed me by my collar and pulled me up. It always paid to be the lightest man on the team, the lightest person, because if I was one of those 200-pound guys, I don’t know that he could have grabbed me that quickly … It is a dangerous profession.
As with everything, we take as many safety precautions with training, and knowledge of the actions of fire in different situations, but bad surprises can happen.
I think Mt. Lebanon Fire Department volunteers are very, very well-trained. I think it’s one of the best fire departments in the country.
What are some of the other things you remember from your time as a firefighter?
I remember rappelling off the back of the garage there on 19. It’s about seven stories in the back of it going down, too. I don’t even know what’s down there now. The one that’s by the cemetery [the north garage]. We spent an afternoon literally rappelling down the building. It was something I never would have been able to do otherwise.
I hated car accidents. We just did the extrication. That’s a lot different. Being in the OR, I have a certain job and I know what I’m doing, you have a little more control. Sometimes it’s havoc in the beginning, but it’s still a control habit. But an accident scene can be horrific. There is the carnage and the blood and the screams and stuff. I frequently unfortunately backed behind the truck and was sick. Because it was just, really, people don’t realize how awful traffic accidents can be.
Did your nursing abilities help you as a firefighter?
Well at the time, it didn’t. Because we were not to do any of the medics’ work—we were strictly fire and rescue … that’s a place that has grown over the years. From virtually no [first aid] to getting people to the hospital and flying helicopter rescues and that kind of stuff.
What did you do after your time as a firefighter?
[Firefighting] was just for that year, and then I worked at Allegheny General briefly, then St. Clair Hospital. When I was with the fire department, that’s where I met who became my husband, Paul … We got married in 1982. When he retired, we left Mt. Lebanon and bought a farm up here.
… I was 40 when I first rode a horse. After it threw me for a third time, I decided I needed some lessons. It was my mid-life crisis. I always say Paul would have been happier if I had had an affair with the pool boy, because that would have faded. And this passion for horses has remained. I still compete with my horses.
I like physical and mental challenges, I guess. And firefighting and anesthesia and working in an operating room, and actually training horses and riding combines physical and mental skills, which I find really stimulating. Even at this age of 70, I’m still working full time at AGH.*
What was it like being the only woman in the department?
I never really considered being a woman as opposed to being a man. It just wasn’t something that I thought about. I found it interesting and exciting and it definitely can be a physical profession. But I never found anything I couldn’t do that was asked of me. I think some of the men were surprised that I could do some of the stuff that we did. I don’t think I ever let them down. I remember at one place we were ventilating … the smoke filled up the house. We had huge fans that we put up to windows to get the smoke out of the house. They are very very powerful. But one happened to be in a window and it wasn’t functioning well. And I mentioned it to one of the guys and said, “Really, we should probably change this out. It isn’t doing any good.” And he went and replaced it and got another one, and I kind of snickered a little bit because I thought, “Gee, he much be used to his wife telling him to move the furniture around.”
What would you say to someone who is thinking of becoming a firefighter?
Oh, by all means, try it. It’s invigorating. You use your body and your mind. It’s challenging. And there’s something very rewarding about being needed by a complete stranger—and being needed like five minutes ago. I mean, you really need to be there and be 100 percent and help someone. Its not a 9-to-5 job. It’s not one of those things like, “Hey it’s 5 o’clock, I’m going home.” It’s like working in the operating room. When you’re on call, you work until the job is done. So you get a little bit of that satisfaction also.
*Dori turned 71 and retired a few months after this interview.