A firefighter. An adviser. A mentor. A father figure.
And chiefly, a friend.
That is how Lee Ireland's friends remembered him. Ireland, Newton County's deputy coroner, died Wednesday morning after a sudden illness. Obituary information appears on page 2 of today's paper.
"When my son texted me with the news of Lee's passing, I stood and stared at my phone in disbelief," said Patrice Lasiter. "Shock, grief and memories — 50-plus years of them, from grade school when he tormented me by pulling my braids to the day we walked with our graduating class, the great class of '69."
Ireland was born in Neosho and was a lifelong resident. He began his working career at his father's shop, Paul's Motor Electric, and at the age of 18, began working on the fire service at Neosho Fire Department. He was a volunteer EMT with Newton County Ambulance District and later served as the board president.
"Our lives were intertwined all through the years," Lasiter said. "As my EMT instructor, he pushed me to my limits. I hated him and loved him all the same. It was a magic time of ambulances and emergency services, blue lights and sirens."
It was at the fire department where Ireland first met Mark Bridges, the current coroner.
"I wasn't out of high school yet and went into the Neosho Fire Department as a volunteer," Bridges recalled. "Lee was on the fire department and we were friends back then."
The two were friends for many years and served in emergency services together: Bridges as a paramedic, Ireland as an EMT. Seventeen years ago, Bridges, a former Newton County sheriff, decided to run for coroner. Then he discovered he had an opponent: Ireland.
"We got together and talked it over and decided that whoever was elected, the other would be the deputy," Bridges said.
Bridges won the election and kept his promise, as he hired his friend to assist him. It was a good decision, he said.
"Lee was kind of like me — you don't do the job for the money," Bridges said. "It's sure not a job most people would even want to do. But he loved helping people."
Bridges said Ireland took about half of the calls for death investigations as well as a good deal of the paperwork associated with the office.
"He would say 'I can take the call. You go spend time with your family.' He did a lot of the administrative stuff."
Andy Nimmo, current fire training chief at the Joplin Fire Department and former chief of the Redings Mill Fire Department, remembered Ireland's dedication to the fire service.
"I remember his desire to help make the fire departments in Southwest Missouri the best they could be," Nimmo said. "He had a love, obviously, for Neosho. But he tried so hard to make the firefighters and the fire departments in the area better all of the time. And he was good at it."
Page 2 of 2 - Nimmo said he recalled how Ireland mentored him as the younger man began working his way up through the firefighting ranks to the administrative level.
"He was always there to help when I was going up in the fire service," Nimmo said. "And I remember any time you talked to him, it was family and the Neosho Fire Department. He was a Neoshoite through and through.
"I want to be the kind of dad and family man he was, to be as committed to my community."
Long-time friend John Glore met Ireland through Bridges' brother, Greg, another longtime acquaintance. The two served as volunteer firefighters together.
"What stands out the most about Lee was his willingness to share his knowledge and help," Glore said. "It did not matter if it was about cars, photography, fire science or life. Lee was a good man. I remember spending many hours talking to Lee when I was a volunteer fireman about firefighting. The man was a wealth of information. He will be missed by more people than me."
But Ireland wasn't always serious. Many remember his off-beat sense of humor, which he freely shared.
"I can only remember a few times when Lee did not have a smile on his face," Glore said.
"We had so much fun back in the old days," Mark Bridges said. "Lee was a very intelligent person. He had a degree in biology and a master's in counseling. He was inquisitive. We could sit and talk about any subject under the sun. He was a very good conversationalist and had a knack for helping people. That's what he really wanted to do — help people."
Patrice Lasiter remembered her friend as a mentor as well. Most recently, Ireland had taken her son, Dusty, under his wing.
"Dusty called to tell me of his conversations with Lee and I made a mental note to call and thank him," she said. "I never had the chance.
"Let that be Lee's legacy. Hold those close that you love. Make that overdue phone call and pat the dog twice on the head.
"Rest in peace my dear friend. I miss you more than I can say."