Jordan Bedell, 28, of Kent, is a U.S. Marine, the founder of a community nonprofit and the first full-time Black firefighter in the history of the Kent Fire Department. Carter Eugene Adams/The Portager
Marine, volunteer, firefighter — Jordan Bedell is breaking barriers and has just one wish for Kent children: that they have the same opportunities he did.
On one of the first cold mornings of fall, Jordan Bedell performed morning chores and started his shift at Station 1 in the Kent Fire Department. Bedell, in full Class B uniform — a blue “KFD” shirt, black belt, utility pants and black leather boots — finished his tasks and stepped into the open truck bay. He posed for a portrait.
This was not Bedell’s first time in front of a news camera. In January, WKYC interviewed him for his work creating a youth-focused nonprofit in Kent, his hometown.
Bedell is making news again for his years of service to his community as a fire medic, for his service as a U.S. Marine, for his work in community organizing and for making history. Bedell is the first Black person to be hired full time by the Kent Fire Department in its nearly 100-year history.
The day after his portrait session, he sat down for an interview with The Portager. Sitting outside Bent Tree Coffee, between sips of nitro cold brew, Bedell described what it was like growing up in Kent in the 1990s.
Now 28, he lived in various places around Kent, spending the majority of his youth on Kent’s South Side. He played basketball at the Rec Center, tossed footballs off of Dodge Street and ran around the woods with the other athletic kids, some of whom became lifelong friends.
“It was just a very small, tight-knit community down there,” Bedell said. “This city has always been supportive of me. And that’s one of the reasons why I came back here is to work to give back to them.”
For him, that support manifested itself in the form of father figures who all played a part in keeping Bedell on a straight path and balanced throughout his youth.
“For them to pick up a role that they weren’t really asking for just because I was there as a fly in their house and for them to provide guidance and mentorship was something that I carry with me to this day,” Bedell said.
He knew even before graduating he wanted to do something in medicine, something helping people, and so in fall 2010 Bedell began his first semester at Kent State. Bedell’s goal was to pursue nursing, but he fell just below the 3.5 GPA requirement for the school. It was at this time he began to hear another calling, one brought on by tradition and loss.
Life in the Corps
Bedell’s family’s service in the United States Marine Corps goes back three generations, starting with his grandfather, then his cousins, his brother and eventually himself.
Before Bedell enlisted, his brother was struck by an improvised explosive device while serving overseas. Around this time, the Kent community was mourning the loss of Army Spc. Adam Hamilton, who was killed fighting in Afghanistan in May 2011. While his brother survived his wounds, both tragedies struck a chord with Bedell and stirred in him a need to serve his country. He enlisted in 2011 and stayed with the Corps until 2015.
While serving, Corporal Bedell worked as an Infantry Squad Leader, taking part in several Unit Deployment Programs. He traveled to places including South Korea, Thailand, Brunei, Guam and Japan, helping to train American allies in U.S. tactics.
A Bill O’Reilly tattoo and new career path
Throughout his time in the Corps, Bedell bunked with the same roommate, a man who had worked with the New York City Fire Department. The roommate talked often about the department and his father’s service in it. His dad was a firefighter in New York on Sept. 11, and stories of his service inspired Bedell.
“Hearing the stories about his dad and his time in the service, being there, kind of just motivated me,” he said.
Fire service and the Marine Corps have more than a few things in common, especially the organized chaos in which both organizations thrive. It drew him in. He pursued his EMT and paramedic certification in 2015 and 2016.
The organized chaos continues to energize him, and it’s the reason he got one of the most glorious television meltdowns in modern history commemorated on his skin. “Fuck it we’ll do it live!” reads the tattoo across Bedell’s right arm, an homage to Bill O’Reilly’s profanity-laden blooper tape.
Excitement is not the only reason Bedell became a first responder. The service’s attention to detail, structure and, most importantly, camaraderie, are things Bedell holds dear.
“You’re spending every third day with that core group of people. You’re there for 24 hours,” Bedell said. “So you’re definitely gonna learn about their family or more than likely you guys are running in the same circle.”
Bedell entered the service as a part-time EMT for Rootstown Fire in 2016. By 2017, Bedell was a medic, a firefighter and working for the Akron Fire Department, where he stayed until August when he was hired full time at Kent Fire.
The worst day of their lives
In his years of service, Bedell has responded dutifully to the calls of hundreds of people who are having the worst day of their lives. Pediatric calls are the hardest on the father of two, who, having worked in a large city with a children’s hospital, has seen countless numbers of these.
“Once you start to see it a lot, you start to get numb to it,” he said. “You don’t have time to digest it because, honestly, you have a bad call, and then you got to go to the next call. There’s no time to reflect over it because that next call, that next person is calling for emergency services. They want your A game. You got to focus on them and their needs at the time.”
Asked if his numbness is from experience or from PTSD, Bedell said it’s a conditioning that comes from a high frequency of high-stress calls. To decompress after a long shift, he works out and takes time to reflect on the day.
Beyond lights and sirens
Bedell and Marcus Wright didn’t have any classes together in first grade, but running around the playground the two forged a lifelong friendship. As the years went on, Wright’s father, Robert, became a father figure to Bedell and one of his long-time mentors. This relationship helped to inspire some aspects of the Academy of Life and Learning.
The Academy is a community-based nonprofit they founded in 2016. It offers Kent children and high schoolers programs in sports, life skills, nutrition and school tutoring.
Having both grown up in Kent, they saw it as a college town with little in the way of programs and opportunity for youth. They wanted to find things for kids to do and create an atmosphere focused on them.
“Youth today deal with a lot of poverty in Portage County, and we want kids to feel they have value and be part of the community,” Wright said.
The academy has grown exponentially in the past four years, most notably with the addition of a motivational football camp. The camp features a series of motivational speakers who talk about their own struggles and successes. Each camp and program is free thanks to donations and grants. Attendance grew from 32 kids in 2016 to 167 last year. Events were cancelled this year because of Covid-19.
“Kids have thanked us and, seeing what impact we have, it reinforces why we do it,” Wright said.
A historical first
Bedell was on Kent Fire’s radar since March when he took the civil service test for the department, said Kent Fire Chief John Tosko. Bedell’s reputation preceded him, and “after interviewing him we were convinced even more that we wanted to hire him,” Tosko said.
Tosko said there were worries among department leaders about how Bedell would be welcomed in the community and in the department. He said discussions about diversity have happened from the top down for some time now, and while he was happy to have a moderately more diverse department, he made a point to say that was not why Bedell was hired.
“People look and say we hired a person of color,” Tosko said. “I say we hired a great firefighter who happens to be a person of color. His personality and demeanor override any negative feelings anyone may have,” Tosko said.
Although he’s the only person of color on a staff of dozens, and the first in decades, Bedell doesn’t feel intimidated or pressured. “I judge people based on character and not on faces,” Bedell said. “Everyone at the department is nice to me, and if there’s ever a problem people are open to talk about it.”
While Bedell hasn’t dealt with racism from peers and fellow professionals, that does not mean the communities he serves are so tolerant. Bedell said that during his career he has been called the n-word seven times, each time by a patient.
“It sucks that 2020 is like this, but, I mean, you got hundreds of years of oppression of a certain minority group, and then you got roughly 60 years post-civil rights era,” Bedell said. “Some people just think that, you know, racism just up and disappeared.”
Jordan Bedell has gone from being a kid on the peewee football team running around on a field wearing a helmet and padding twice his size to wearing nearly half his weight in oxygen tanks and protective gear running into burning buildings. At 28, he has devoted his life to serving his community, to caring for others and to ensuring kids have the same opportunities and support he had growing up.
Bedell says the most rewarding part of his service, beyond his years in the Marines and time as a firefighter, is the work he’s done to help the youth in his own community.
“It’s one of the prouder things I’ve done in my life.”