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Ken Little dies, used vast knowledge of Chicago to help fight fires

Ken Little, who was the Chicago Fire Department's senior fire dispatcher and unofficial historian, retired in 1993. | Sun-Times files

Before computers and GPS, there was Kenneth F. Little.

Mr. Little, 84, who died Friday at the Glenview Terrace rehabilitation center in Glenview, was a senior fire-alarm operator with the Chicago Fire Department said to know every street, alley and shortcut in the city, helping him get engines to fires faster.

In a 36-year career, he saved lives, former Chicago Fire Commissioner James Joyce said.

“He had a second sense for what fire companies were closest,” Joyce said. “He was amazing, just one of a kind.”

Mr. Little co-authored six books on Chicago Fire Department history and helped found the Fire Museum of Greater Chicago, which has a library named in his honor.

Ken Little (left) and the Rev. John McNalis co-authored books about Chicago firehouses. | Sun-Times files
Ken Little (left) and the Rev. John McNalis co-authored books about Chicago firehouses. | Sun-Times files

After a 1957 fire raged through the Chicago City Council chambers, he received a commendation for staying at his post, as he and dispatchers worked above in the old Fire Alarm Office.

His ingenuity once helped save a famed Chicago German tap and restaurant, Schulien’s at 2100 W. Irving Park Rd., according to his son Philip Little, president of the fire museum. He’d heard a radio message about a snorkel squad heading back to quarters after a fire. Minutes later, a call came in about flames at Schulien’s.

“He thinks for a second, if they’re going back to quarters, they have to be going down Western Avenue,” Philip Little said.

He contacted that squad instead of the fire companies that normally would have been called, and found it was at Irving and Western. Those firefighters got to the restaurant in just 30 seconds and quickly put out the fire, his son said.

Growing up in Old Town, young Ken Little used to hang around a firehouse at North and Hudson, listening to radio calls.

Young Ken Little (right) liked to hang around firehouses and listen to the alarm calls. | Provided photo
Young Ken Little (right) liked to hang around firehouses and listen to the alarm calls. | Provided photo

When he got a little older, he took buses, streetcars and the L to visit every city firehouse.

He also rode the bus from one end of the city to the other on Western, the city’s longest street at 24 miles. He got out and walked to learn shortcuts and one-way streets. Eventually, he studied the layout of factories so he could warn firefighters about toxic chemicals in basements.

Ken and Alice Little on their wedding day. He served as a military police officer in the U.S. Army at Fort Lewis in Washington. | Provided photo
Ken and Alice Little on their wedding day. He served as a military police officer in the U.S. Army at Fort Lewis in Washington. | Provided photo

If the fire radio was quiet, Mr. Little and other dispatchers would quiz each other on the names of every bar and grocery store on Western Avenue from Howard to 119th Street, a skill that made him a popular guest on overnight radio shows hosted by Eddie Schwartz.

It was as if Google Earth was in his head, according to the Rev. John McNalis, the fire department’s chaplain, and Bill Kugelman, a former battalion chief and union official.

“You could give Kenny a location — Armitage and Kedzie — and he’d say, ‘OK, there’s a gas station on this corner, there’s an apartment building with a bakery on the first floor,’ ” former fire chaplain Tom Mulcrone said.

“He was equal to any machine they’ve got on the fire department today,” said William Cosgrove, a retired fire investigator.

When Mr. Little joined the Chicago Fire Alarm Office in 1957, fire engines were dispatched from call centers at City Hall and one at 63rd and Wentworth. Some calls came in from thousands of the red, free-standing fire-alarm boxes scattered around the city dating to the days when people didn’t have phones.

Mr. Little knew old-timers who were on duty the day of the 1903 Iroquois Theater fire that killed more than 600, as well as the 1910 Chicago Stockyards fire that killed 22 firefighters, the single biggest such loss until the 9/11 attacks. He knew a fire-alarm operator who, in 1929, drove police officers to investigate a shooting on Clark Street that became known as the St. Valentine’s Day massacre. And, he knew slide-down fire poles were invented in Chicago, according to Philip Little.

During the Blizzard of ’67, he stayed in the office for 36 hours. “They couldn’t get out, and no one could get in,” his son said.

Despite a prodigious “Rain Man” memory, he had a wry sense of humor and a confident, plainspoken style. Thanks to his eyebrows, he resembled comedian Robert Klein. He taught history at Wright College. He enjoyed the jazz of Errol Garner. And he collected coins and Tootsietoys. A Tootsietoy firetruck will be tucked in his casket.

He and his wife Alice, who died in 1986, had 10 children, including triplets.

In addition to his son Philip, Mr. Little is survived by daughters Anna, Rita and Mary Ellen, sons Kenneth, Robert, Stephen, Richard and Raymond and four grandchildren. His son Thomas died before him.

Visitation is 3 to 9 p.m. Monday at Cumberland Chapels in Norridge. A funeral Mass is planned for 10:30 a.m. Tuesday at the church he attended growing up, St. Michael’s, 1633 N. Cleveland Ave.

Ken Little (center) with some of his family, including son Stephen Little (just right of him), now a Chicago Fire Department battalion chief. A section of Patterson Avenue near Cicero, where he raised his family, was named in his honor. | Provided photo
Ken Little (center) with some of his family, including son Stephen Little (just right of him), now a Chicago Fire Department battalion chief. A section of Patterson Avenue near Cicero, where he raised his family, was named in his honor. | Provided photo