Frederick "Bear" Palmer

Bear’s legacy and love

For Frederick E. “Bear” Palmer, education was his religion, and JCCC was his church.

It was only fitting then, that when the adjunct professor, emergency medical services, passed away from leukemia at the age of 67, his family and friends gathered in Polsky Theater in the Carlsen Center to remember the man who had touched so many lives and contributed to a scholarship set up in his name.

Palmer taught classes to would-be emergency medical technicians (EMTs) for 17 years alongside his daughter, Valerie Palmer.

The two decided to take a first responder class at JCCC in the early 1990s. Valerie had come home from college, and she searched for a way to connect with her father.

“I suggested we take the class,” she said. “EMS became our shared language. Don’t get me wrong: we loved each other. But this was something we could share.”

Bear loved teaching. After a career in the military, where he earned multiple medals in Vietnam and retired as a lieutenant colonel, he began work as a business manager by day.  At night, starting in 1997, he taught in the evenings, exhibiting his true passion in the classroom.

“He could totally school me on teaching,” Valerie said. “He was always an educator, a master at explaining things.”

In March 2010, Bear Palmer was diagnosed with leukemia. Ray Wright, director, emergency medical science, put Bear on a leave of absence.

He immediately entered the University of Kansas Medical Center, where Valerie works as nurse. Former students, now nurses and respiratory therapists, recognized him. As they took care of him, they told him stories about being in his class. Valerie’s mother leaned over to her husband at one point and said, “I’m glad you taught them so well.”

Bear Palmer was released from the hospital a month later, only to make on-again, off-again visits for the remainder of the year. He was at home on May 19, 2011, when he stopped breathing. Valerie, who had taught CPR to hundreds of others, now used it to save the life of her own father. She broke his ribs, but he came back.

The resuscitation also was due to the efforts of Alexis Haynes, a paramedic with Med-Act and a former student of Bear Palmer’s.

“It was a surreal feeling, using our BLS (basic life support) on Bear. His class was the first place I, and so many others, learned how important – no, essential – these skills were. That night, they worked,” Haynes said. “It felt great.”

If this were a Hollywood movie, the story would end there. Daughter and former student save the life of father and teacher. But this is real life, and the story had a different ending. Bear Palmer passed away July 31, 2011.

“We had from May to July to say goodbye,” Valerie said. “I often tell my students in class: you’re not always doing CPR to save someone’s life. Sometimes you’re just doing it long enough for them to stay alive to say goodbye to their families. And that’s what happened to us.”

Bear’s family set up a scholarship in his memory, in hopes that his love of teaching and learning would continue in those who never knew him. It will be offered each year to students studying emergency medical science. The JCCC Foundation accepts donations to this scholarship.

The family also asked for remembrance service on campus. From the funeral home to the memorial service at the college, Bear Palmer received an honor escort from the Bonner Springs (Kan.) fire and ambulance departments, where he had been an EMT. The honor escort is usually reserved for firefighters and EMTs who die while on the job. Bear Palmer got one anyway, along with an honor guard from the Overland Park (Kan.) Fire Department.

The Olathe (Kan.) Fire Department hung a flag on their truck’s ladder, signifying the death of one of their own. Life Flight flew over campus in salute.

“There was uniformed personnel all over Polsky,” Valerie said. “It was the end he deserved to have.”