When Salem State University seniors crossed the stage to collect their diplomas on May 20, there was a very familiar face in the crowd. Fire Chief Jason Gilliland accomplished something no other Marblehead fire chief has done when he earned a bachelor’s of fire science and administration that day. And it only took him 30-plus years to do it.
“It was good to finally accomplish this,” Gilliland said. “I hate leaving things undone.”
Gilliland started on the path to a bachelor’s degree in the late 1980s, taking night and summer classes while working as a firefighter. Then, as typically happens, life got in the way. Gilliland said shortly after starting at what was then Salem State College, he and his wife, Amy, had children, then came promotions on the job and suddenly the decades flew by. Then COVID-19 hit, and Gilliland happened to run into an old friend, Frank Twiss, the coordinator of the fire science programs for both North Shore Community College and SSU. Gilliland said he asked Twiss if the credits from those earlier classes were still good or if all was lost.
“He said ‘Absolutely not,’” Gilliland said, adding that within days Twiss had set him up with a counselor who put together a flow chart of what he needed to do to graduate. “At age 58-59, I started online and plugged away at it for two years, and in May, I finally graduated.”
But if it weren’t for the support of his family, some great professors and two amazing math tutors, Gilliland said he might have quit.
“I joke that I majored in fire and science administration and minored in quantitative math,” he said. “It was my very last class and had it been my first … I would have never made it.”
Gilliland said he visited his math professor prior to starting the class to talk about his lack of math skills and was told “this is not self-pacing; you’re going to have to keep up with the work.”
Amy Gilliland pushed her husband to take advantage of SSU’s math lab, and Gilliland said he was glad he did. Not only did he meet Alex and Penelope, the two young math tutors he credits with getting him through the class, but he also met other classmates, who up until then had lived largely online.
“And I realized 60% of the class was failing,” he said.
Gilliland said he was told not to worry; they would be graded on a curve. He was shocked and delighted when he received a C for the class, he said.
“I had never been humbled like that in my life,” he admitted. “I thought ‘I deal with $4 million budgets, and I can’t do quantitative math.’ I never sweated out anything like that.”
It gets better.
When he arrived at SSU’s O’Keefe Center for graduation, they handed him his number, telling him where he would stand in line, and a gold cord.
“I said, ‘What’s this for,’” Gilliland recalled. “’Cum Laude’ they said.”
He had no idea he would be graduating with distinction, he said.
Is it important?
With a degree in hand, Gilliland said he will be able to teach fire sciences once he retires as chief, which he thinks will be fun. And getting the degree was important to him
, but whether it’s important to the job is perhaps more a matter of opinion.
“There is a saying, a medical student that got a D in class is still a doctor,” Gilliland quipped. “Obviously, people look at the degree.”
However, Gilliland noted that neither former chiefs, Edward Creighton nor Barry Dixey, went to college. He called Creighton, who was at Pearl Harbor during World War II, a great chief and said he’s yet to meet anyone better with budgets and numbers than Dixey.
That said, Gilliland said he would urge today’s firefighters, including his son Liam, who has been on the job for seven years and has a degree in criminal justice, to get a degree in fire science. And if they can, do it in person. Gilliland said while he thoroughly enjoyed his college experience, quantitative math aside, he thinks he would have liked it more had he been able to take the classes in person versus online. He would have liked the in-person exchanges and discussions, he said.
But a degree is a degree, and he called walking across the stage to accept his simply awesome.
“I don’t regret it,” he said. “It was a great experience and I’m glad I did it.”