Playing with Fire: A Memoir for Capt. Mitzi Rice
6 March 2010
My first experience with Mitzi was through her reputation. One of my sons came home from Sternberger Elementary when he was in first grade talking about his day. He told me how firefighters wear masks that help them breathe in the smoke, but if they come into your bedroom when the house is on fire, they can look scary and sound like Darth Vader. “Oh,” I said, “Cool. Who taught you that?” “A clown and her dog. The dog was spotted black and white and could do tricks, like creeping along the ground.” A clown? We are not a big clown family (Stephen King’s It, John Wayne Gacy, and Insane Clown Posse have all left a mark). “Yes, a clown and she was cool—rainbow hair like flames. Hair like flames? Great, I thought, Ghost Rider has come to my son’s school. My son went on, “She said it was important that when the firefighters come to help you not to freak out, not to be afraid.” And he learned to stop, drop, and roll, which he demonstrated for us 90 times that night. This was a conversation that was probably repeated several thousand times in Greensboro, as school children came home and told their parents and caregivers about a wild clown and her talented dog who told them not to be afraid.
We read two passages this afternoon from Matthew’s story of Jesus, one from the very beginning, and one from the very end. In the beginning of the gospel, an angel appears to Joseph and says Do not be afraid. Then he tells Joseph the child’s name will be Immanuel, which means God with us. Matthew’s gospel ends on the same notes. There is another angel, saying Do not be afraid. And there is the promised boy who is now a man named God with us, and he promises his friends—and through them—all of us that he will be with us to the end of the world. The reason not to be afraid is because God is with us; we do not have to face the griefs and terrors of this world alone.
Every time an angel, a messenger from God shows up in the Bible, the first words out of his mouth are, Don’t be afraid—as if their angelic appearance is frightening. Seeing an unexpected angel or firefighter in full turnout gear can be frightening when you’re not expecting it. Think about it, though: the first words for someone right out of God’s presence are always, Do not be afraid, as though it is God’s primary message to us. I used to think my primary message as a minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ was to say to people, “Do the right thing.” Now, after almost 16 years here I believe my primary message is the same as Mitzi’s: You do not have to be afraid. Don’t be afraid of God, of living your life fully, of loving someone else, of making mistakes. Fear is the enemy—not God, not life, not love.
Mitzi lived her life as fearlessly as anyone else I’ve ever known. For example, she was not afraid of hard work. Her parents taught that once she was old enough to count to three, she was old enough to work. One of her early nicknames was Bucket, due to the fact she had to stand on a bucket to pick and sort tobacco leaves. In was in this family that she would learn her incredible work ethic and hustle. When her father would stride out to be work the rabbit dogs, she would hang onto his back pocket in order to keep up. Likely this was the last time she had to work to keep up with anyone else; more often it was the other way around. She worked hard for years as hostess at the Marriot, and she and Becca transformed their rural home into a small ranch through their hard work.
Growing up she learned not to be afraid of horses. Riding was one of the lifelong loves of her life. As a child, her family had ponies with all sorts of wild names: Honey Bunch, Paint, and Booger. (Bucket riding Booger bareback, now there’s a phrase.) Mitzi rode bareback most of the time, playing hide and seek in the cornfields with her brother Bill and sister Vickie. She would love riding her whole life. She and Becca rode together for years, until one day, Becca told Mitzi that she was going to give up riding for a while, and take up something new. That was a hard week in their house, but a good turning point too when partners can tell each other what they really want and like. Mitzi rode her horse Rebel until she could no longer do so. Perhaps the hardest day of her decline was the day she gave him up to a new home. Mitzi planned for that day, but it meant the end of her lifelong love with horses.
Obviously Mitzi was not afraid to be a firefighter, which is not a calling for the faint of heart. She was one of the first female firefighters when she joined the department in 1985. She worked hard in her career, eventually making captain, an honor they do not just hand out. The last day on the line before she become a fire safety educator, she rode a call to a burn. She and a coworker entered the building to fight the flames, when a backdraft ignited the ceiling over and behind them. She thought to herself then, “Oh my gosh, here I am on my last day, and I’m going to die.” Mitzi and her fellow fireman crawled to safety soon after, in the smoke, heat, and blaze. She did not report being afraid, however.
Mitzi was not afraid to make a fool of herself either, especially when it concerned the safety and education of children and senior adults. Mitzi did not like to dance; she said it just drew attention to yourself. But as Flame the fire clown, she danced, sang, jumped, laughed, and generally put on the fool so that people might know about fire safety. Mitzi had an intuitive sense about how to work the crowd, and she had a teacher’s intuition about which child needed to be chosen. She’d play loud wild music, and pick out teachers and students to dance with her. At one time there was a very shy boy named Matthew who saw Flame and Ember repeatedly. Being home schooled, he had the freedom to see her, and his mother knew Mitzi’s schedule from the website. His mother said he was pleasantly obsessed with the two, and it’s easy to understand how and why. Matthew and his mother must have seen Mitzi’s spiel dozens of times. Matthew is now 15, and it’s interesting to note that he wanted to see Mitzi one last time, but the day they planned to visit was not a good one, and the visit had to be cancelled. What an impact she made on him, and I’m sure many others.
Flame and Ember gave an estimated 3200 shows witnessed by thousands of adults and children; if you do the math, that’s 291 shows annually over 11 years, or an average of 6 per week—shows which are physically and emotionally demanding. Through her odd and enticing approach, she taught children how to stop, drop, and roll, how to dial 911, the dangers of cooking fires. Honestly, it is a rare person who could do this type of important work. The Apostle Paul said he was a fool for Christ’s sake; Flame played the fool for the sake and safety of our children. She played with fire so that children would not. In fact, during her tenure, the fire department did not have a serious fire injury or single fatality of a school-aged child—a remarkable testimony to her effectiveness.
Another time she was giving a program at a senior center, when she and Ember greeted an older woman in a wheelchair. The woman mumbled something and reached out to Ember. Her caregiver behind her burst into tears and told Mitzi, “This is the first time in 9 years my mother has spoken, and she connected with you and your dog.” In 1999 she become Greens-boro’s first full-time fire safety educator. You know how it happened: Mitzi was in Capt. Kevin Pettigrew’s office when she spotted a picture of a clown from a conference he had attended. “Who is this?” she asked. He explained it was a new concept that a few fire departments were using to teach fire safety to younger audiences. “Why don’t we have one?” We don’t have anyone to take it on, the captain explained. That was all it took. She attended a fire safety academy and then a two-week clown school in Georgia, where she became Flame. She found Ember when she and Becca traveled to a breeder to look over the litter. Not seeing any dog they liked, they turned to leave, when Ember peeked out from under a nearby bush. “That’s the one,” Mitzi said. Some people see things that are and ask why; she saw things that were not, and asked, why not?
Mitzi was not afraid to live inside her own skin. She knew who she was and was comfortable with her gender and athletic body. For example, she played basketball in high school and was a star player. She told Susan Phillips that, if she had to be high school, at least there was basketball to ease the pain of studying. She worked out every morning, rising at 5 am to run on the treadmill for an hour or more. She realized that sexuality and good health were good gifts from a gracious God who loves us, and she did not take them for granted. She knew her orientation from the time she was 16 or 17, and she was not fearful of living out of who she felt she was, the person God created her to be. No wallflower or shrinking violet, Mitzi dated lots of women, before she settled down with her true love, Becca.
Nor was Mitzi afraid to love her friends. If you knew her, you were a part of her life. She would organize camping trips to Philpot Dam, where a caravan of campers and boats would depart for Deer Island for a weeklong outdoor party. She was the driving force behind numerous events like this, complete with sign-ups and charts. She called it the Family Reunion. The second year had t-shirts; the third hats, and always an annual talent show for the 5 or 6 years she organized it.
Mitzi loved to have theme parties at their home—fabulous Valentine’s Day parties, Christmas, or July 4th. Halloween may have been the biggest, with even the horses in costume. She had stations you had to go to, tasks to complete, maybe a newlywed game complete with prizes. Guests always left with party favors—homemade goodies or glassware or whatever. She was a good cook and made you stay out of the kitchen too. If you were at Mitzi’s party, you were served; you did not serve yourself.
The huge fall blowouts are now legendary. She and Becca had a barn party complete with dance floor and 400 guests. At the last fall fest, before it jumped the shark, Becca and 3 others arrived in a limo, dressed up like the Spice Girls. And right behind the limo was a police cruiser, blue light flashing, for the party had gotten too loud, and the neighbors had complained. After that, she and Becca switched to more subdued means of partying with a smaller crowd, but just as fun. If you were Mitzi’s friend, she connected with you and let you know that she loved you. She thrived on pulling people together. Right before her death, her insurance agent called in tears, because Mitzi was her friend. If I died, my insurance guy would only cry at the life insurance payout, but it was very difficult to know Mitzi and not to feel connected to her.
She was also not afraid to be angry with her friends. You could get on her list if you hosed her off by, say, not showing up two years in a row to an invite. By her own admission she had been hot-headed as youth, but that had leveled with maturity. Often people who bring intensity to life and friendship can find themselves put out with friends, but Mitzi did not carry a grudge. An apology put everything right, and she would offer one too if she had offended. It says something good about her that she cared enough to get angry with people she loved, and not just let them drift away.
She had a soft spot in her heart for two things: senior adults and chainsaws. (Not together you understand.) Mitzi loved her some chainsaw—all power tools, really, but the ‘saw had a special place in her heart. After one Xmas not too long ago, Becca was gone, and Mitzi was having trouble removing the too big Christmas tree from the living room. So, Mitzi fired up her Husquava and cut the tree up in there. And, afterward she cleaned up so well that Becca would have never know, had not Peggy (her blood sister) blown the whistle on her weeks later. How can you not love a woman who would use a chainsaw in her own living room?
Mitzi absolutely adored senior adults. Here’s a secret: as much as she enjoyed giving her presentation to children, she loved performing for senior adults more. Last year, when she and Becca were shopping, Mitzi saw an older woman having trouble getting the clothes hangers off the racks. She went over to the woman, “Ma’am, may I help you?” Mitzi helped her, assisted her selecting the clothes she wanted, accompanied her to the register, and took her packages out to the woman’s car; all in all, spending 30 minutes with a complete stranger. Another time, when she saw a cute older couple in the fast food line behind them, she told Becca, “That will be us someday,” and she paid for their meal too.
Mitzi was not afraid of commitment. Greater than Mitzi’s love for horses, dogs, children, senior adults and chainsaws was her love for Becca. They met almost 17 years ago when Becca was line dancing at a country western bar. There was a spark, but it wasn’t until sometime later, when on Becca’s birthday, she and some friends went to eat Sunday brunch at the Marriot at Mitzi’s station, not on purpose they both claim. Becca got the world-class treatment from Mitzi, and they talked every day that next week after Mitzi got off her hour workout on the elliptical trainer. For a lot of reasons they took things slow: Mitzi said she knew it could be the real thing and she didn’t want to blow it. Last Thursday would have been their 16th anniversary. Every morning Mitzi cooked them both breakfast, and made Becca’s lunch. Every time I met with them, one always spoke about her concern for the other: Becca was worried about Mitzi; Mitzi was worried about Becca. They grew into each other: Mitzi’s chutzpa rubbed off on Becca; Becca mellowed Mitzi just a bit (mellow being a word not often associated with our Mitzi). Mitzi was an extrovert, but also a homebody. When they went on a 7-day cruise together, Mitzi was ready to go home by the 4th day. She wasn’t a big traveler; she loved family and friends, and she was deeply in love with Becca, and she with her. Becca, I want to say how impressive your care for Mitzi was, from the beginning stages of cancer to the difficult last days. Your consistent love for her was a witness and testimony to us all. Thank you for being a model of the commitment, “in sickness and in health.”
Lastly, I believe that Mitzi was not afraid to die. Surrounded by a huge crowd of friends, members of her church tribe, and a horde of her fellow firefighters, she was not alone in this battle. From my conversations with her, she knew that God loved her beyond measure, had forgiven her for her mistakes, and was with her all her life, but especially now. I know she told several close friends of hers, “Every morning I pray for you, that you’ll be ready when I go on.” She knew in death she would be with God. She did not believe, as I do not, that God had caused her cancer. She did believe, as I do, that something good might grow out of this desolation, for God’s specialty is creating good out of evil or senseless events. She read her bible every day while she ran on the treadmill; she had read it all the way through once, and was well into a second time through when she died. Mitzi tried to comfort all of us who visited her in her final days; she tried to help us through her death—does that amaze you as much as it does me? Like the children she loved to teach and lead, she was helping us not to be afraid of what was coming next.
So the question Mitzi’s life leaves me with is this: Can we live without fear? Can we live without being afraid to love, to risk, to commit to God and to a partner for life, to a congregation and to our friends? Can we give our life without fear to a work, a calling that may be dangerous, foolish, and caring all at the same time? Remember: every time angels show up they always say the same thing first: Do not be afraid. So did Mitzi, so did Mitzi, every chance she got.
News Story about Mitzi's Death in the News & Record, March 1, 2010:
Mitzi Rice, a Greensboro Fire Department retiree better known as Flame the Clown, died Saturday after a long battle with cancer.
“The loss — it’s uncomfortable,” said Rice’s boss and friend, assistant fire chief David Douglas . “We certainly did not want to see it, and we also know that she’s not suffering.”
Rice, 53, joined the fire department in 1985 . The Colfax native had been waiting tables for years but had dreams of becoming a flight attendant for Piedmont Airlines. After she didn’t get the airline job, she embarked on a career battling blazes.
In 1999, she became the city’s first full-time public safety educator within the fire department.
With her dalmatian Ember, she went to day cares, elementary schools, nursing homes and other events in the role of Flame to teach everything from the dangers of cooking fires to when and how to dial 911.
Her last show was Dec. 16, Douglas said. She retired Feb. 1.
Douglas said she reached would tens of thousands of people.
“She had a deep commitment and a passion for fire education, and I don’t’ know that you can leave a better legacy that what she has left,” he said.
During her tenure, the fire department did not have a serious fire injury or single fatality of a school-aged child, Douglas said.
“That validates what she did,” he said.
Firefighter Jeff Pritchett has volunteered to become the new public safety educator. The department would like to have the education program reestablished in the community within two or three months, Douglas said.
Rice’s funeral will be held at noon Saturday at College Park Baptist Church, 1601 Walker Ave.
Visitation will be 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Friday at Hanes Lineberry Funeral Home at 515 N. Elm St.
Memorial contributions may be made to The Humane Society, 4527 W. Wendover Ave., Greensboro, NC, 27409.
Cards and notes may be mailed to 7105 Friendship Church Road, McLeansville, NC, 27301
Mitzi Rice of McLeansville passed away on Saturday, February 27, 2010 after a courageous battle with cancer.
Funeral services will be held at 12:00 p.m. Saturday, March 6 at College Park Baptist Church, 1601 Walker Ave., in Greensboro. Burial will follow at Lakeview Memorial Park.
Mitzi retired as a Captain in the Greensboro Fire Department where she served for 24 years. She was greatly respected and admired in the Greensboro community as the creator of the highly successful fire education program where she was known as "Flame" along with her devoted dalmatian "Ember". Mitzi also worked 25 years at the Greensboro Marriott Hotel from which she retired.
Mitzi is survived by her loving partner of 16 years, Becca Daisey ; her parents William and Norris Rice; a sister Vickie Brown and her husband Jimmy; a brother Billy Rice and his wife Sue; in addition to numerous nieces and nephews, as well as great nieces and nephews, Mitzi is also survived by Ember, Jazz and Oscar.
The family wishes to thank The Regional Cancer Center and Hospice of Greensboro for their kindness and loving care during her illness. She will be deeply missed by her family, friends and the Greensboro Fire Department.
In lieu of flowers, donations in Mitzi's memory can be made to the Humane Society of the Piedmont, 4527 West Wendover Ave., Greensboro, NC 27409.
The family will receive friends from 6 until 9 p.m. Friday at Hanes-Lineberry Funeral Home N. Elm St.
See a gallery of photos on the Hanes-Lineberry website.
Feature on Mitzi in the News & Record, January 30, 2010:
By Ryan Seals
McLEANSVILLE - Over the years, thank-you cards and letters have piled up in the home of Capt. Mitzi Rice of the Greensboro Fire Department.
From parents, for teaching their children what to do in the event of a fire. From teachers and principals, for taking the time to connect with their students. And from colleagues, for simply being a great friend.
But now Rice — known as Flame, the enthusiastic and lovable clown, who with her dalmatian pal Ember, teaches schoolchildren to “stop, drop and roll” — wants to return that gratitude.
Earlier this month, terminal uterine cancer forced Rice to retire her colorful wig and clown shoes for good.
“I want Greensboro to know how much Capt. Mitzi Rice appreciates them as much as Flame and Ember,” Rice said from her McLeansville home Friday.
“I feel appreciative, humble and grateful to have shared my career with the whole city,” she said. “It’s been amazing.”
Rice, 53, joined the fire department in 1985. The Colfax native had been waiting tables for years but had dreams of becoming a flight attendant for Piedmont Airlines.
She landed an interview with Piedmont, but didn’t get the job. She later realized there was something bigger in store for her, and based on the advice of a friend who was one of the first female firefighters in Greensboro, Rice applied and became a firefighter.
She spent several years in the field battling blazes before becoming a fire safety inspector assigned to oversee apartment complexes in the city.
In 1999, Rice became the city’s first full-time public safety educator.
When she moved into her new role, she spotted a picture of a clown in Capt. Kevin Pettigrew’s office.
It was from a conference he had attended. The clown was a new concept that some fire departments across the country were using to teach younger audiences about fire prevention.
“I asked why didn’t we have one, and he said no one had really wanted to take it under their belt,” Rice said. “That was all it took for me was that idea.”
She attended a fire safety academy and was invited to a two-week clown school in Georgia, where she became Flame.
And after an estimated 3,200 shows witnessed by thousands of children and adults, the rest is history.
With her dalmatian Ember, Flame went to day cares, elementary schools, nursing homes and other events to teach everything from the dangers of cooking fires, to when and how to dial 911, and she accomplished it all with puppets, games and songs.
Along the way, Rice said she’s met amazing people and experienced many special moments.
“I have been invited to so many wonderful places,” Rice said.
“I’ve had kids and moms and dads say, 'I will never forget you because you helped my child get over their fear of dogs ... or costumes.’”
It’s that sort of special connection with children that makes Rice a great teacher, said Gerri Cox, principal at Rankin Elementary School.
“I think she is phenomenal,” Cox said. “It’s very rare for someone who is not a schoolteacher to be able to make a connection with children and help them relate to real-life situations. We love her.”
Assistant Fire Chief David Spears said Rice found her calling as Flame, and no one else at the department could have preached the importance of fire safety better than she did.
“She has reached thousands and thousands of children, elderly and everyone in between,” Spears said. “It was a perfect fit for her.”
While Rice is going to miss her work, the children and her many colleagues, she said she is blessed for all she has been given.
“I will be forever at peace with how I lived my life,” Rice said. “It’s been a great thing.”