When Pat Hilberg became the first female firefighter in Pasco's history 22 years ago, officials were unsure if her male colleagues would accept a woman on their team.
They worried if a woman could handle the men's bravado inside the firehouse.
"(Our) shift had a reputation as 'boisterous cowboys' as someone once said," Pasco Battalion Chief Dave Hare said. "We were considerably nervous about a lady coming over to our shift."
On Wednesday, peers joked about that initial uncertainty and skepticism as they honored Hilberg for her more than two decades of service. She officially retired Feb. 25.
"At the time we thought it would take a special female person to be able to enter into that environment and make it work," Pasco City Manager Gary Crutchfield told Hilberg during the ceremony. "You proved you were a special person."
Hilberg, 62, realized she wanted to be a firefighter while working at Lourdes Medical Center, she said. Her brother was a firefighter in California and many in her family have worked in the medical field.
Hilberg and nine others joined the department in August 1991, she said. She worked out of station 82 near the airport, sleeping in the same room and sharing a bathroom with the all-male crew.
At Wednesday's ceremony, Hilberg held up a sign -- which read "MEN" in capital letters -- she saved from the only bathroom at the old firehouse. She found the sign while cleaning out her locker.
"They weren't sure about a female at first," she said. "I didn't want to be treated any different. I wanted to blend in, be no different and hold my own weight. It all worked out for me."
Hilberg spent her entire career in the department as a firefighter and trained emergency medical technician.
The men she worked with quickly became like family as she proved herself on fires and became "one of the guys" around the firehouse, she said.
Everyone in the department supported Hilberg when her eldest son died in 1996 from medical problems associated with diabetes, she said. Firefighters took extra shifts and drove fire trucks to the funeral.
"I don't know if I could have made it through that if it weren't for them," Hilberg said tearfully.
Hare described Hilberg as a smart, reliable firefighter who solved many problems cerebrally. He worked with Hilberg for 15 years and never saw her not give it her all on a fire, he said.
"She taught us that brute strength and machismo needs to be coupled with intelligence and compassion," he said. "We are much better off with her than without her. We learned to be good human beings and good firefighters."
Members of the department had a big bear carved out of wood made for Hilberg because she likes spending time in Montana, she said.
Crutchfield also presented her with a plaque on Wednesday to commemorate her time with the department.
Hilberg has plans to work in her garden before heading to Hawaii with her husband for four weeks, she said. She plans to stay in Pasco when she returns.
"It really just all worked out for me," she said. "I credit my husband. It was never a problem (working with all men). It's easy when you're married to your soul mate."
Also at Wednesday's ceremony, eight firefighters received department badges: Justin Lockman, Jason McGary, Ryan Scellick, Ricky Micheles, Mike Phillips, Sam Reed, Ryan Quesenberry and Mark Waddington.
Seth Rohrer, Chris Andrews and Gary Stratton were promoted to lieutenant. Jeff Cooley was promoted to captain.
-- Tyler Richardson: 582-1556; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @Ty_richardson