November 23, 1998
by Andrew Walgamott, staff reporter
BOTHELL--In an era when the word "connect" has come to conjure images of things electronic, Cathleen Wiggins is a reminder of its human aspect.
Most recently, Bothell Fire and E.M.S.'s public fire educator put Bothell High School students in touch with a photographer, firefighters, and members of the community to create and produce a calendar that's anything but the typical beefcake calendar.
If assisting on a calendar seems like a long way from the job a "public fire educator" should be doing, you're right and wrong. The job has evolved since Wiggins transferred to the fire department seven years ago. Her boss, Fire Chief Marcus Kragness, says the position is now--for lack of a better word--a "connector." And he says it may take a nationwide search to replace Wiggins.
Last week was Wiggins' last with the city of Bothell where she's worked since 1989. She left for her new home in Montana last Friday to join her husband, Jerry, who suffers from arthritis made worse by Western Washington's damp climate.
"She will truly be missed," said Dave Leggett, Wiggins' counterpart at the Woodinville Fire & Life Safety District.
Wiggins, 41, was hired as an office specialist in Bothell's public works department in 1989. In 1991, she transferred to the Fire Department as a fire prevention specialist, "a dream come true," she said.
"When I grew up, I didn't know what I wanted to be," she said. Wiggins was a Navy brat who never lived in any one place longer than six years. It wasn't until she worked for a Wyoming fire department where got her feet wet in public education that she knew the direction her life was to go.
"I was 29, and I decided it was what I wanted to be full-time," she said. But realizing that opportunities were limited in Wyoming, she moved to Washington and eventually got on with the city of Bothell.
Wiggins was a perfect match for the direction Kragness is taking Bothell Fire, connecting the firefighters with the community and vice versa. "She's done a great job [projecting the vision]. It's in her heart, in her core. It's just a part of who she is," Kragness said.
Confirms Jenny Bell, a former Northshore School District teacher who's known Wiggins for the past seven years, "She really built up a rapport with the community."
Wiggins' position has evolved through time. Early on, she was "Poof, the Clown," who taught grade-schoolers about safety. The name "Poof" came from her long, golden-brown hair, which, along with her ever present smile, are her trademarks. Later, she helped bring firefighters back into schools with the "Firefighters as Role Models" program.
Her work also allowed her into people's lives along Main Street and local senior centers, a rewarding experience for the public and Wiggins. Meeting with the elderly was like opening the pages of history. One gentleman she chatted with at the Woodway Inn Retirement Center knew baseball greats Satchell Paige and Babe Ruth. Another woman described to her the air raid drills of World War II.
Patricia Gallagher, administrative assistant at the Woodway added, "She's really a nice lady. I know the residents liked her."
Bothell High students Aislinn Stewart, Mandy Ladd, and Kelli Bartlett praised Wiggins' helpfulness on the calendar at her going-away party last week. "We just barely got the project out of our mouth," says Stewart, "and Cathleen was like, 'yeah!'"
"All I did was connect," a modest Wiggins said. The calendar, which features the stories of community members touched by firefighters as well as safety tips, will be available Dec. 12 at the Bothell Safeway for a small donation that will go to the Northwest Burn Foundation.
Wiggins was Bothell's public information officer, the first link between calamity and the media. But she says the bigger role of being where accidents and fires strike is to help the victims deal with the crisis. "I've sat with widows while waiting for the coroner. I've helped acquire housing for families who were burned out," she said.
Leggett said one of her skills was adding a "sense of warmth in chaotic situations."
For now, Wiggins says she'll take a few months off, her first serious time away from working since she was 19. "I don't know [what I'll do next]. But that's the other exciting part--an opportunity to find a whole new career. And I'm excited about that. I do know I'll work doing something with people," she said. "I feel confident I can do anything I put my mind to."
Asked if there was any special message she'd like to leave behind, Wiggins replied, "Take the time to build relationships here. What you give, you get back twofold."