He’s a spry 73, all 5 feet 6 inches of him. These days he’s a handyman by trade, fixing this and that for a Blount County buddy’s rental homes and apartments. He’s earned retirement, but he’s not ready. And when you meet and talk with Denny LeSage you’d never, ever guess that this soft-spoken chap was a U.S. Army Special Forces Green Beret medic who fought and slogged through the jungles of Vietnam.
When he’s not a handyman or at home with wife Carrie, he is the oldest volunteer with Knox County Rescue (KCR), formerly known as the Knoxville Volunteer Emergency Rescue Squad. He is an EMT Advanced who began volunteering in 2010. And in each of those nine years, he has exceeded 1,000 hours a year in volunteer hours worked. That’s an exclusive club at KCR.
Denny’s regular shift is from 6 a.m. each Tuesday to 7 a.m. on Wednesday at KCR’s Headquarters Station 1 on Chilhowee Drive.
KCR Deputy Chief John Whited is a big fan of Denny LeSage.
“Denny is steady as a rock,” Whited said. “He provides a level of guidance and wisdom to our members. Denny also provides his input and perspective to the leadership as well.”
He has maintained his commitment and work through hip replacement surgery two years ago, back surgery a year ago, and last January he slipped on a patch of ice on his driveway and broke his left arm. The next week he was back at the station.
So we asked Denny, why, at his age and place in life, is he doing this volunteer work? “Well, my wife works Tuesdays and Wednesdays and she wants me out of the house so she can get some rest,” he says smiling.
And the real reason, please? “Well, my career was over and I was looking for something to do with the second half of my life that’s useful and helpful. I was 64 and I have a unique skill set from my life’s experiences. “They have some cool toys here that are fun to play with, and I get to help save lives and help people.”
His unique skill set includes his combat medic skills, undergraduate and master’s degrees in mechanical engineering from Michigan Tech University, 13 years in management with GE, three years with Black & Decker, and seven years as vice president and general manager of NA Products in the Forks of the River Industrial Park. And when all of that ended, he owned Black’s Radiator for 16 years in Maryville and closed the business in 2015.
Denny is a native of Flint, Michigan, who began college at Michigan Tech right out of high school. He was there for a year and a half when he dropped out of college.
“I volunteered to be a medic, and then I volunteered for Airborne jump school and then I volunteered for Special Forces,” he says. “Went to Fort Bragg (North Carolina) for Green Beret training.” Even though he was a medic, he was trained just like all the soldiers as a Green Beret. And he was never wounded while serving in two Special Forces camps.
On Dec. 15, 1967, he left for Vietnam and arrived just in time for the brutal and bloody Tet Offensive, which began in January 1968. Unlike many Vietnam veterans, Denny has never had any post-war health or psychological issues. After serving for 3½ years he returned to Flint and Michigan Tech to finish his degree programs.
Then the career began.
During his time with GE he worked as shop operations manager in a plant of 800 employees in Gainesville, Florida. It was life-changing. The plant’s medical clinic was run by its head nurse, Carrie Walsh, a retired Air Force captain flight nurse. “I knew Carrie at work just a little. She used to put our workers on light duty and I’d go in and yell at her,” he said.
Turns out that Denny and Carrie both were volunteers at a Suicide Prevention Crisis Center in Gainesville and really got to be friends when they served on the same mobile team there. Their first date was at a Crisis Center pig roast. That was 35 years ago and they’ve been married for 34 years.
Today Carrie works at Trinity Medical Associates in Blount County and has been on 13 mission trips as a nurse to the far reaches of the world – Russia, Croatia, Portugal, Costa Rica and Ecuador. Carrie and Denny have what’s known as “servant hearts.”
And how did he find his way to Knox County Rescue?
“Carrie worked with a woman whose son broke a leg in a football game and she said that the guys from the rescue squad treated him very well. I didn’t even know there was a Rescue Squad and that caused me to look into it,” Denny explained.
Before that, he had tried ambulance work with Lifeguard Ambulance Service but quickly found his motion sickness prevented him from riding in the back of ambulances.
During his Tuesday KCR shifts – day and nights — he works first-responder traffic accidents, fire calls with Rural Metro, lift assist calls, trapped animal rescues (horses dogs, cats), and water rescues.
One call is seared in his memory. Four or five years ago a teenaged woman lost control of her car around midnight at the intersection of Northshore Drive and Westland Drive. She hit a power pole, her car ended up on its top and she was trapped inside, hanging upside down in the seat.
“It was one of the most difficult extractions I have ever worked,” Denny recalls of that evening. “It took us an hour to get her out. We had the jaws of life and other tools and were cutting things everywhere to get her out. She was really scared and I was talking to her trying to keep her calm. Lots of noise and she was hurting. But we just couldn’t free her. We finally had to cut out the entire seat from the car and we lifted her out.”
Her father was at the accident scene. She survived with a concussion and a cracked vertebra.
Denny and Carrie were living in Farragut at the time and Carrie was working at the Farragut Kroger Store’s medical clinic. A man came in for his second set of immunization shots. “Carrie asked where he was going overseas and he said Ecuador, and she said that she’d been there a few times and they got to talking,” Denny says. “The man mentioned that his daughter was in a wreck the previous night and as they talked Carrie realized that our son (he was a KCR EMT for two years) and I worked that wreck, so he knew my name.”
Remember – there are no coincidences.
“We usually don’t know or find out what ultimately happens to the people we rescue, but this time we did,” Denny said. “They knew I worked it and a week after the accident the girl and her family and boyfriend showed up at the station and had homemade baked cookies for us. That was pretty special.”
We asked him one final question: Why, with that background, are you a handyman? “I decided to go to work as a handyman because if I screw up and the toilet leaks, nobody dies.”
Editor’s Note: This is part of a weekly series – Our Town Heroes – highlighting Knoxville’s emergency-service professionals. Watch for this feature every Monday on KnoxTNToday, and if you have suggestions about a first responder/emergency-services professional we need to feature, please email Tom King or call him at (865) 659-3562.