by Jill Ragar Esfeld
OLATHE — Firefighter Michael Rutten thought the highlight of the City of Olathe Fire Department pinning ceremony would be the moment he was promoted to captain.
He was wrong.
For Rutten, the high point came a moment later when a cheering group of fourth-graders from St. Paul School in Olathe marched in waving handmade signs of congratulations.
Led by school principal Tonia Helm, the class was excited to share this special moment with the firefighter who had taught them life-saving lessons.
“I had no idea they were coming,” said Rutten. “That was awesome.
“I’ve got the signs they made in my truck,” he continued. “I’m going to put them up in the fire station.”
Through their Adopt-A-School program, Olathe fire crews visit schools once a month to present fire and life safety lessons to third-graders.
Rutten was St. Paul’s firefighter last year, and he bonded with this class.
“They were a small group,” he said, “so they were easy to get to know.”
These fourth-graders had nothing but good to say about Capt. Rutten.
“He was very kind to us,” said Elizabeth Bethea. “He taught us to stay away from frozen ponds because whenever you fall into a freezing pond, you can’t feel anything.
“And he filled a bucket with freezing cold water and ice and we had to try to grab pennies with our hands.”
“He’s nice and he’s smart,” added her twin sister Eva.
Classmates Ty Mormandin and Roberto Gomez recalled the day Rutten helped the kids learn fire safety in a trailer designed for that purpose.
“When the smoke alarm went off,” said Ty, “smoke came down and you had to get down and crawl so you could breathe.”
“When we were in the trailer, he made us get out through the window,” added Roberto. “He’s a really kind man.”
A few weeks before the pinning, Helm just happened to run into fire Capt. Bill Schneider at the grocery store. He told her Rutten was getting pinned captain.
“And I said, ‘Can we go?’” recalled Helm. “And Bill said, ‘That would be really good; let’s make it a surprise.’
“The kids got all excited and wanted to make posters.”
Helm was happy for students to see a clear example of hard work paying off — especially work that involved helping others.
“This was a really big deal for him and his family,” she said. “So, we wanted to go and support him.”
Not only is Rutten a favorite with the kids at St. Paul, the entire school community considers him to be pretty special.
He’s helped raise funds to support the school because, in addition to being an awesome firefighter, he’s a trained culinary chef.
And he’s currently the reigning champ of St. Paul School’s annual Chefs Classic cooking challenge.
The Chefs Classic, held at St. James Academy in Lenexa, features chefs from all over Kansas City cooking up more than 800 cold and hot hors d’oeuvres.
“Our ticket holders sample all the different selections from each of the chefs,” said Helm. “They use their ticket stubs to vote for their favorite.
“The top two do an ‘Iron Chef’ cook-off in the St. James gym.”
Before he became a firefighter, Rutten was a trained culinary chef working restaurants in the Chicago area.
“[St. Paul] asked if I would be interested in doing their cooking competition three years ago,” said Rutten. “That’s how I got involved.
“I won last year.”
It helps that, during the competition, Rutten has a cheering section of firefighters.
“They’re all in full uniform,” said Helm. “And they bring their siren. So if someone gives Michael a compliment at the event, they sound their siren.”
The firefighters also donate a fire-station tour to the event, which includes an auction.
“We look forward to the cooking competition each year,” said Rutten, who will be defending his title again this year. “We have a lot of fun there.”
Though he loves cooking, Rutten is happy he made the change to firefighter.
“I’ve always enjoyed hands-on work,” he said. “I was looking for a job where I could help people, be part of a family dynamic and work with my hands.”
St. Paul students are glad he made the switch, too.
“He’s very kind and this day is very special,” said fourth-grader Ben Kueter. “He helps our city and he came to St. Paul and showed us what to do in case of an emergency.
“And at the end of the year, we got sprayed with a fire hose!”