One of the first things you noticed was the shoulder patches: Maplewood Police, Centennial Fire, Hennepin County Sheriff, Coon Rapids, Fridley, and of course Columbia Heights Fire and Police. The hundred or so people in the basement of the Columbia Heights Public Safety building who gathered to celebrate the career of Assistant Fire Chief John Larkin were mostly fellow public servants and their families.
Chief Larkin’s 29 years as a Columbia Heights firefighter ended with his retirement on February 28. The party the day before brought forth comments from Heights Police Chief Lenny Austin, City Manager Kelli Bourgeois, and Mayor Donna Schmitt, and good wishes from the area’s fire and police community.
Bourgeois called Larkin “Irreplaceable.” Mayor Schmitt noted, “Time goes by so fast; for a long time we didn’t even have a full-time fire department.” Chief Austin called Larkin a “great partner,” and estimated that the two of them answered 15,000 to 20,000 calls in their careers together. He added: “For John, there is only one word: dedication. To the city, the Fire Service, and to the people of the city.”
Larkin attended Columbia Heights High school, where he lettered in football and wrestling. At St. Thomas College, he also played football and coached the Heights high school wrestling team. He received a business degree and worked in the private sector, training salespeople for a company that sold business to business, and ran one of the sales divisions.
Larkin recalled that when he was in college, and living at home, his father offered him some money to invest in the stock market, adding, “I think he just wanted me to get out of the house. And I didn’t invest then.” He said that after ten years in the business, he felt no better prepared for his future. But an accidental meeting with an old friend at a J.C. Penney store caused him to make a radical change in his life’s direction.
“My friend told me he was a “paid on-call” firefighter for the Robbinsdale Fire Department, and that it was a great part-time job.” But even after his friend warned him that “You will be giving up your Mondays for the rest of your life,” Larkin decided to give it a try. He later called it “the best decision I ever made.”
Larkin quickly moved to a full-time position with the Heights Fire Department, while remaining an on-call firefighter with Fridley. He was promoted to Captain in 2003, and Assistant Fire Chief in 2005.
Asked about his family, Larkin said, “I am blessed with a very supportive family. As a firefighter, there are many demands that will pull you away at the most inconvenient times. My support group at these times were amazing. I have two children. My son is in his second year of college at the U of M and my daughter is a junior at Columbia Heights High School. Both of my parents still live in Columbia Heights and continue to be a consistent rock of support for me.”
Larkin said, about his decision to retire, “There were a multitude of things that contributed to my decision to retire. For the most part, I am healthy, happy and I am at a point that I believe we all hope to reach: I can walk away and be comfortable and not have to work anymore unless I choose to.
“I am extremely active in the community and I am not going away anytime soon. I just have one less hat to wear. I feel like I have been squeezing 36 hours into a 24-hour day for a long time. I am looking forward to see what a regular 24-hour day feels like.
Larkin noted that a friend and longtime St. Paul firefighter recently passed away a little more than a year after retirement, while raking leaves. Larkin said he took that death “very hard.”
He concluded, “I have been extremely fortunate to find a job that became my passion. Not everyone can say that. I am extremely grateful to have been able to live and work in the community I grew up in. My hope is that along the way, I was able to help out and make a difference for people in what was often the worst time in their life. I want to say ‘thank you’ to the City of Columbia Heights for the opportunity, and thanks to the residents of this city I love, for allowing me to be there in their times of need.”
Larkin will remain on the Columbia Heights School Board (where he has served for the past seven years) and on the board for the Columbia Heights High School Alumni Scholarship Fund, which grants scholarships annually to Columbia Heights students and graduates.
Below: John Larkin’s parents Veronica and Doyle are seated in front. In the back from left to right are Larkin’s brother Chris, John himself, sister Anne, and brother-in-law Tom. (Photos by Mark Peterson)