Answering the Call: Patrick Tomko Reflects on Career, From Priesthood to Paramedicine
Few in the fire service can say they arrived at the career by walking a divine path, but for Patrick Tomko, a life of service was always part of the plan.
“I never had a job before besides priesthood,” said Tomko. “By the age of 14, I was on the track for ministry, whether I knew that at the time or not.”
Tomko, who retired from the Madison Fire Department in January after 24 years of service, began his vocation in high school seminary on Chicago’s South side. He then graduated from Loyola University/Niles College, Chicago’s college seminary, and finally completed his studies at the North American College and Pontifical Universities in Rome and Vatican City. He went on to become a Catholic priest at a parish in the Archdiocese of Chicago.
His life path veered toward firefighting when he served as a chaplain for a local fire department in the north suburbs of Chicago.
“What I learned about the people who did the work is that while they sometimes faced challenges in their personal lives, they all loved what they did,” Tomko said. “Meanwhile, my heart and mind continued to move away from ministry.”
Tomko himself became a paid on-call firefighter with the Countryside Fire Protection District in Vernon Hills, Illinois, as he continued to grapple with what his calling was meant to be.
“I decided to move away to Madison— close enough, but far enough, from Chicago— so I could get a look at myself without the noise of everybody else—family, church,” he explained. “I wanted to find myself in my own place, to feel like my life was mine.”
After a brief stint in the field of social work, he applied to the Madison Fire Department and was hired on December 1, 1997. His first assignment was at Fire Station 6, then-home to the Hazardous Incident Team, where he enjoyed the cerebral aspects of the team while also enjoying the physical aspects of firefighting. While there, he worked with then-senior firefighter Bob Recob, whom Tomko credits for providing early mentorship, and for coining the nickname that would prevail for the remainder of his career: “Padre.”
“I initially fought it inside because I was leaving priesthood. I wasn’t coming here to be a priest,” he said.
Nevertheless, Tomko would eventually embrace the nickname, and would go on to recognize what an important figure Recob was in his early days at MFD.
"His endorsement of me was one of the things that helped me be successful," Tomko says today, adding that Recob provided the protection he needed as a gay man on the department. "That wasn't part of my identity at the time."
Within a year of being assigned to Station 6, Tomko embarked on paramedic school, a venture he says was the hardest thing he's ever done but also the best thing he's ever done. He went on to spend ten years in the Training Division, serving as an instructor for Recruit Groups 22 through 32, but EMS would remain a prominent focus in his career.
"I realized that's where the rubber meets the road. It's the front line," Tomko said. "We're invited in to bring some light and ease some pain. That's been the rewarding work of this."
As Tomko sees it, there are parallels between his service in the ministry and his service as a firefighter/paramedic, namely the act of doing the right thing— the best thing— for most people, which doesn't require the formal structure of the church or religion.
"The common thread of the calls is finding the composure to dignify people. To not judge them in their moment of crisis, but to lift them out of that moment and to better their existence in whatever way that can be done."
Likewise, with his past experience in the priesthood well-known and respected within the department, Tomko was called upon to during some of the department’s most trying moments. When Medical Director and UW MedFlight doctor Darren Bean died tragically in a Med Flight helicopter crash in 2008, "Padre" was asked to eulogize on behalf of the Madison Fire Department. He also officiated the memorial services for Firefighter/Paramedic Richard Garner and Apparatus Engineer Todd Mahoney, who died in 2018 and 2019, respectively.
Though they were poignant moments in the department's history, Tomko was honored to represent the department and convey the support of "the MFD family" to the immediate families who were grieving these tragedies.
"While I struggled with my nickname initially, I learned why it was there—'Once a priest, always a priest,' is a comment people make,” he said. “Here I thought I’d given that up or lost that because I was leaving the priesthood, but in fact I gained so much more."
In serving the community through fire/EMS, Tomko says he's been able to have an impact while still living out his values. He maintains that it's important to be an ally for people who face disproportionate barriers to success or opportunities.
As a gay man on the fire department, he describes himself as "having the outside of the 'status quo look' but the insides and an identity that allows me to identify with people who struggle." He credits the quality of the people at the Madison Fire Department for having been able to maintain a long and successful career that may not have been possible elsewhere.
"This is a very safe place to honestly be who you are," he said. "That's a credit to the people that I work with and the environment that exists here in Madison."
Allyship is also what drove him to become a volunteer at CampHERO, an annual summer camp designed to teach girls from Kindergarten through 12th grade courage, confidence, and character while introducing them to the protective services. There, he puts his culinary skills to work, preparing meals and snacks for a multitude of campers. His talents in the kitchen are well-known within the fire department, and his famous "Padre Salad," Tomko's twist on the traditional Chicken Caesar Salad, is a widespread hit he describes as "often imitated, never recreated" (see recipe below).
Tomko's love for food began as a child and was influenced by his grandmothers, who focused on Eastern European and Polish cuisine. Caring for his younger siblings during the day also meant there were many mouths to feed, and he quickly developed skills that would be put to good use in a firehouse where up to 10 crew members may be on duty. His experience in Rome influenced the way he incorporates fresh ingredients and in-season produce into his meals.
"When I started working on the job here as a rookie, I didn't have to touch toilets, I didn't have to mop floors. They put me in the kitchen right away!" he said.
As he enters retirement, Tomko recognizes there's a world of opportunity before him and a fine set of skills and experiences in his back pocket. His ventures may take him to a food pantry where he can continue to explore his interests in food security, but he's also considering writing a cookbook chronicling his travels. First, though, with summer well underway, he's eager to get out on Lake Mendota with his sailboat named Electra.
"That's going to be one of my focuses," he said with a glimmer of excitement in his eye. "That's where you can find me."
The 'Padre' Chicken Caesar Salad
Serves up to 10 - a whole firehouse!
1-2 heads of romaine lettuce, chopped
8 –10 chicken breasts, cubed
1 bag of croutons
1 small bag of grated parmesan cheese
1 bottle of Caesar or Italian vinaigrette dressing
Mix the following ingredients in bowl:
4 T chili powder
2 t kosher salt
1 t black pepper
1 T garlic powder
½ t cayenne pepper
2-3 T sugar or 2 packets of sugar substitute
¼ C of vegetable oil
Mix all dry ingredients and taste to ensure a balance between salty, sweet, and a bit of spice—adjust to taste. Add oil.
Mix in cubed chicken and cook in pan on stove top till cooked & tender. Drain off oil.
Put chopped romaine lettuce in big bowl, dump on croutons and parmesan cheese.
Mix cooked chicken with lettuce.
Pour dressing on salad, toss & serve.
Serve with Pillsbury Grands muffins.