Chief Gregory Dillard has been a pillar in the Village of Ford Heights. Dillard has dedicated his career as a retired educator of 38 years at District 169 East Chicago Heights, now known as District 169 Ford Heights, and recently retired after 48 years with the Ford Heights Fire Department, formerly known as East Chicago Heights Fire Department.
Dillard has served the community with professionalism and compassion every day while providing emergency, medical and fire services. Dillard serves as the Senior Pastor at Pentecostal Church of Christ Cathedral located in Matteson, IL, and a Bishop of the Midwest District for the Pentecostal, which contains four states.
On June 1, 2022, Charles R. Griffin, the Mayor of the Village of Ford Heights, honored Dillard with a plaque for his tireless work as a servant to the community. Chief Dillard is happy looking back at his career devoted to serving the community and passing the torch of leadership to the next generation. Dillard will be celebrating his retirement on July 2, 2022.
Chicago Defender: What inspired you to be a firefighter?
Chief Dillard: The Mayor of Ford Heights, Saul Beck, asked me to work as a clerk to help him with some paperwork in 1974. While working there, I was interested in being an EMT. There were no EMTs and paramedics at that time. I knew I wanted to be a servant of the people.
Chicago Defender: What was it like being a firefighter in the 1970s, and what has changed?
Chief Dillard: The reason I was a firefighter for 48 years, was because I believed no one was going to help and rescue my people. When I was chief, we had one truck, a 1972 Ford John Dean Truck. We got it to a fire, but most of the time, we had to tow it back because it was an old truck. When I went to the chief meeting with other fire stations in the suburbs, I was told that my station was not in compliance. One of the chiefs said “You people will never have and never be nothing. They need to burn East Chicago Heights down.” That situation gave me that spark that I am going to do my best to get everything that all the other fire stations have. I will get grants, have BBQs, and do raffles to make sure the fire department in East Chicago Heights has all the equipment and resources to function as a fire department. I told the chiefs in the meeting, “Don’t’ you die because I will prove to you all what East Chicago Heights is capable of doing.” During my tenure, I got over 27 vehicles, three custom-made fire trucks as chief, and an ambulance, provided with proper training and certifications. Before I became chief, East Chicago Heights Fire Department had nothing. All of that was done under my leadership.
Chicago Defender: Was racism rampant in East Chicago Heights when you were chief?
Chief Dillard: Racism was very rampant in the 1970s and 1980s in the south suburbs. We were the only black community surrounded by white communities. For 25 years, I was the only black chief, and it was very difficult during that time with the racism. Through the years, things began to change, and now there are fire departments with black fire chiefs.
Chicago Defender: Are black firefighters given the same level of respect as their white counterparts?
Chief Dillard: Today, we are now coming into our own. We have the same certification and education that everyone has. I believe that in the south suburbs, there are diverse talents, black chiefs, and officers. Everyone respects one another. I’m proud to be one of the first African Americans that helped change the canvas of the fire department.
Chicago Defender: Are more African Americans applying to become firefighters?
Chief Dillard: There are not a lot of African American firefighters in small towns applying. I’m hoping that we change that. I encourage our young people to come to the fire station and see what it takes to be a firefighter or an EMT. It’s a good vocation if you are interested in fighting fires and protecting the town and the people. Most importantly, you have to be a servant.
Chicago Defender: Did your department struggle during the pandemic?
Chief Dillard: It was something I had never experienced. Every day, it was pins and needles trying to give the community some direction. The firefighters and EMTs worked 24 hours and even gave up their time when they didn’t get paid. The only thing that bothered me was that not enough of the community of Ford Heights got vaccinated. My department drove around the neighborhood trying to get people vaccinated. Schools and community centers provided free vaccination, but unfortunately, it didn’t fare as I wanted it to be. For the safety of the town and schools, the community must get vaccinated.
Chicago Defender: As you reflect on your career, what are you most proud of?
Chief Dillard: Being a servant to the people by saving lives and their property. I helped delivered five babies, and just to see the smiles on the mother’s faces that I was there to help them deliver their bundle of joy safely. To be there when the people needed me the most, was my greatest reward.
My department didn’t get a lot of money. The town was very depressed. There were times we didn’t get a paycheck. We received vouchers during Christmas to get items from the Salvation Army. The motivation we had at that time and the respect we had for one another held us together. There was no money, but we did it out of the kindness of our hearts and the love of the community.
Chicago Defender: What expectations do you have for the Ford Heights Fire Department now that you are retired?
Chief Dillard: The people that are in charge are the ones that I have trained. They are community-minded people. I’m very comfortable that the chief will take the Ford Heights Fire Department to the next level. I gave them the baton, and I know they will make me proud.
Chicago Defender: What advice would you give to someone who wants to be a firefighter?
Chief Dillard: If you love being a servant and helping people, as I do, it’s a great career. Especially these times, with the pandemic, people are looking for help and direction. It’s rewarding when you help someone that is in need.
Tammy Gibson is an author, re-enactor, and black history traveler. Find her on social media @sankofatravelher.