The Rev. Dan Cesene said he hadn’t been chaplain of Brookfield’s safety services for very long when he was asked to speak at a memorial service.
Cesene said he sat next to then-Fire Chief Keith Barrett.
“I leaned over to the chief and I said, ‘I’m not quite sure what I need to do,’” Cesene recalled. “He (Barrett) put his arms on my shoulder and I’ll never forget these very profound words: ‘The women’s auxiliary has made a million cookies and you’ll have to take some home.”
The story brought levity to the somber occasion of Barrett’s funeral, held Feb. 9 at Brookfield schools, and reminded mourners of Barrett’s ready sense of humor. But, Cesene used the story to deliver metaphorical cookies and call for Barrett’s life to be used as a model: He lived a life of serving others and it’s up to those he leaves behind to continue his work.
Barrett died Feb. 1 at age 64. He had retired from the department in Dec. 2017, ending a 48-year carer with the department.
“Keith has moved on,” said Gerard Zarella, former Brookfield firefighter and a long-time friend of Barrett and members of his family.
Barrett joined the then-all volunteer department in 1970, still a student at Brookfield High School. Zarella said Barrett often rode his bicycle from his home on Addison Road to the fire station that was then on Grove Street.
It was a different time in the fire service. Firefighters did not have their own turnout gear (the boots, pants, coat and helmet) and the helmets would melt “around your ears” if a fire was too hot, Zarella said.
Firefighters could still hang off the back of a truck, “beaver tail” style, and there was no centralized dispatch or 911, Zarella said.
Jack Powell was the chief when Barrett started, but Nick Bartolin was hired as the first full-time firefighter in Brookfield and became chief in 1974. Barrett was one of three full-time guys hired in 1975, and became Bartolin’s right-hand man, Zarella said.
After Bartolin retired, Barrett was named chief in 1982.
“He led the department into the modern era,” Zarella said, focusing on training and equipment, and joining with other chiefs in the effort that became the creation of Trumbull County 911. Also under Barrett’s watch, the fire station moved to Route 7, a second station was opened on Addison Road and the department created an emergency medical service.
Matt Gordon was one of those hired in the early days of the medical service.
“I met Chief Barrett the day that I applied for a job as a part-time paramedic in Brookfield Township Fire Department, with their newly formed ambulance service,” said Gordon, now a captain. “He made me feel welcome and valued as soon as I walked in the door. From the second I was hired, I felt at home.”
As a boss, Barrett’s approach was one of “caring patience and firm resolve,” Zarella said.
“He was a friend and a counselor and sometimes a confidante,” Gordon said. “Keith wanted you to be the best that you can be and treated everybody like family. His concern for his personnel was unmatched. He supported us in our pursuit of training and education, and took well-deserved pride in those results.”
That sense of family extended to those the department served, Gordon said.
“We are expected to not only display excellent technical skills and patient care but all-around customer service, with only one catch,” he said. “We never treated anybody like a customer.”
“He cared for and he worried about the folks that we encountered on a daily basis, often checking up on them or dropping in on them … just to check up and see if they were OK, or to make sure that someone’s needs were being met,” Gordon said. “Did they have heat? Did they have electricity? Were there groceries in the cupboard? On several occasions, Chief Barrett got involved to assist residents in getting the help that they needed, whether it be arranging in-home health care for an invalid that was being left alone to helping an addict getting help that they need, or just changing the battery in the smoke alarm of an elderly woman.”
When there was a cause, Barrett was there, Gordon said.
“He was always busy with a project. He always had somebody asking for something. He always did it. Some group, some person here in Brookfield that needed help, there he was, whether it be a clothes drive, collecting groceries for the less fortunate, making a neighborhood safer by facilitating street lighting. Chief was there. Muscular dystrophy boot drives. Overdose awareness program, rain or shine, chief was there, serving the public. But, not because he was the fire chief – because he was Keith Barrett.”
Barrett personified the values of “above and beyond the call of duty,” “public service” and “leadership by example,” Gordon said.
“The way he treated desperate people one-on-one in their living rooms, or on a bridge, with no audience; more times than I can count, Keith showed up on a difficult scene or a difficult situation and we was able to exert a degree of empathy and real concern for the person and change the situation for the better,” Gordon said. “Chief Barrett was here to solve your problem.”
His example is carried on in the Brookfield Fallen Firefighters Foundation, “which allows us to aid citizens in and around Brookfield and this area in a way we were never able to before; providing education and assistance to the people that are in need,” Gordon said.
Cesene challenged Barrett’s mourners to carry on what Barrett had done.
“Whether it be our cookies, our time, our talent, whatever it is, our treasure, we share with others,” Cesene said. “The real purpose, the real plan, if you will, is to live for a cause much greater than our own selfish ambition. Our lives are meant to make a difference in the world and the community in which we live.”
“Keith Barrett was a good guy who changed many lives for the better in his lifetime and now it is up to us,” Gordon said. “Not only Brookfield Fire Department, but all of us to take up that challenge: to serve our communities and fellow man to the best of our ability; to give our all and then some, and remember the next generation is watching you, learning how it’s done. It’s up to us to make sure that they learn the right way to serve the people, not only with highly skilled professionalism, but with empathy and genuine concern for the people that we’re serving.”
Barrett was buried in Brookfield Township Cemetery.
See a video of photographs from the funeral on the NEWS On the Green Facebook page.