Bonnie Jean Wallace did office work for nearly 40 years, as secretary, manager and executive assistant, and hated every minute of it.
Five years ago, at age 55, she chucked it all in an extraordinary career change -- she became a Baltimore County Fire Department paramedic.
"For once in my life I'm doing what I want to do, instead of what I have to do," said Wallace, who was honored as Paramedic of the Year this month by the Wells-McComas VFW Post in Edgemere. She will turn 61 in May.
Wallace is one of 96 women -- most of them paramedics -- in the 1,000-member county department, and she's believed to be the oldest ever hired as a recruit, said Battalion Chief Mark F. Hubbard, a department spokesman.
She is assigned to Station 9 on North Point Road in Edgemere. The community has a large elderly population, "and they're very grateful for your help," said Wallace, who admits to using her gray hair shamelessly because most people -- particularly seniors and children -- accept her readily as a "granny figure."
"Whatever works," said the mother of four (three of them paramedics), grandmother of six and great-grandmother of two.
But don't let the image fool you, said Capt. David Westbrook, the Station 9 shift commander who nominated her for the award.
Wallace's high energy level led to her nickname, "Ever-Ready Bonnie," he said.
"Physically and emotionally, she does the job. She's one of the guys," Westbrook said. "But if you've got something bothering you, she'll take the time to listen."
Wallace wanted to be a nurse, but her father -- a registered nurse at a time when men in the profession were rare -- talked her out of it, she said. She took the business course of study at Catonsville High School, married, started a family and found herself trapped in a series of office jobs.
Now she has the unpredictable life of a paramedic, responding day and night to calls that include coronaries, sick children, domestic violence and car wrecks.
It's all in a day's work, said Wallace. "I think I get more out of this job than I put into it; it's very gratifying, and you can make a difference. I feel fulfilled now. I hated going to work before. Now I love it. Life experience is a real plus in this job, it helps you to be empathetic to people."
Westbrook said: "We don't meet people on their happy days. We meet them at their worst, at very emotional times," and that's where Wallace shines.
Wallace, divorced after 25 years of marriage, said her discontent with office work and a yearning for something in the medical field led her to join the Reisterstown Volunteer Fire Company about 10 years ago. She began by riding the ambulance as an observer.
That experience strengthened her determination to change careers. After qualifying as an emergency medical and cardiac rescue technician, she applied to the county Fire Department.
Although her children were supportive, she said, many friends told her she was crazy to even try such work at her age -- and besides, the job change would mean a $15,000-a-year pay reduction.
But she persisted, and to her surprise was one of 30 candidates chosen from 1,000 applicants. Wallace said she was even more surprised at surviving the 17-week Fire Academy "boot camp."
"They ran us everywhere. We had to carry 200-pound patients up stairs and then bring them down again on stretchers. At night I felt like I'd been hit by a truck," she said.
"If I had known how strenuous it was, I wouldn't have done it."
She said her children supported her decision, and encouraged her through the training -- as did her younger classmates.
Her son, Phil Wallace, 40, is a Baltimore paramedic. Her eldest daughter, Bonnie Matthews, 41, started with the Middle River Volunteer Ambulance Rescue Company and is training to join the department. Another daughter, Phyllis Mooney, 35, is an xTC emergency medical technician with the Ridgely volunteer company.
"I think she should be an inspiration to all women who want to make a career change, especially at her age," said Rachel Dickens, 29, Wallace's youngest child, a federal worker. "She's just sorry she didn't do it years ago."
Pub Date: 3/31/97