KANKAKEE — Working a job at one place for 40 years is quite an accomplishment. To do it as a firefighter makes it extraordinary.
Last Friday, on the 40th anniversary of his joining the Kankakee Fire Department, James H. Stokes Jr. retired.
“It’s been a journey,” Stokes said. “We saved lots of lives. This is the best fire department in the whole wide world. We give it everything we have.”
Though Stokes says it is time for him to retire, there are still things he wants to do. Most important is helping and assisting people in the community.
Stokes was honored at Monday’s Kankakee City Council meeting which was attended by his family.
“I would like to congratulate Mr. Stokes on his retirement,” Kankakee Mayor Chasity Wells-Armstrong said. “Forty years in the fire service is a milestone. It truly shows his dedication and commitment to our community.”
Kankakee Fire Chief Damon Schuldt said: “We appreciate the longevity and service to the public. He has maintained a great work ethic and we wish him well in retirement.”
The 62-year-old Stokes began his firefighting career on Feb. 26, 1981.
Prior to that, Stokes started out as an emergency medical technician in 1979. He worked out of the emergency room at what is now AMITA Health St. Mary’s Hospital.
Stokes explained he was one of five minority men that were part of a program to become EMTs. He was one of two to make it through.
Stokes said the late Herb Delaney, who was a city alderman at the time, was instrumental in getting him into the program.
Some advice from his mother is what led Stokes to seek out Delaney.
“I was looking for a job and my mom said, ‘Go talk to your alderman,’” Stokes recalled.
A 1977 graduate of Kankakee Eastridge High School, Stokes excelled at football. He earned All-City, All-Conference and All-American honors as a fullback, middle linebacker, nose guard and kicker.
“I learned back then that teamwork was the No. 1 thing to help you succeed,” Stokes said.
And helping the next generation success proved important to Stokes as he founded and still runs Kankakee Kids in Action.
It was a way to give kids something to do after school, whether it was cleaning up a neighborhood, shoveling snow or learning life lessons.
“I still have that vision,” he said. “You work for the people.”
In addition to serving the community as a firefighter, Stokes served a term as Second Ward alderman from 2011 to 2015.
Bumps in the road
But it’s not all been smooth sailing in Stokes’ 40 years with the department. He’s had disagreements over the years.
In January 2008, he filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Stokes argued he was threatened for filing a complaint with the Illinois Department of Human Rights in 2007. The EEOC dismissed the case in September 2009.
In December 2009, Stokes filed a federal discrimination lawsuit against the city for the same incident. The case was dismissed a year later.
“I had to stand up for me and what I thought was right,” Stokes said. “In my 40 years, I kept my head down and stayed focused on the job.”
In 2013, a federal arbitrator ruled in favor of Stokes being reinstated to the department after he was fired in 2011 by the city.
The city argued Stokes filed a false report in July 2011 with the Illinois Department of Human Rights and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
The arbitrator Amedeo Greco ruled the city lacked just cause to terminate Stokes in August 2011 and he must be offered his firefighting position with more than a year of back pay.
But at the end of the day — and 40 years — Stokes looks back on his time with the department fondly.
“I love this department,” he said. “I care for the people I work with and I have a lot of respect for everyone. It is a very challenging job. I loved the job. I enjoyed the people.”
Now it is time for the father of six grown children to learn to be an empty nester.
“That is a new thing for me to learn, as well as learning about life in retirement,” Stokes said.