For firefighter, sense of brotherhood shattered

Times Staff Writer

Before he was Big Dog in the fire station, he was Big Fella because of his giant frame and Bigfoot because of his size 15 boots. Before there was the dog food in his spaghetti, there was the noose draped over his station locker and the white flour sprinkled in his bed.

And before Tennie Pierce became the Los Angeles Fire Department's $2.7-million man -- a symbol of racial discrimination to some and political correctness gone wrong to others -- he was an ordinary firefighter, who had spent 17 years pledging allegiance to the department's notion of brotherhood.

That allegiance began unraveling two years ago, when a firefighter at Pierce's Westchester station mixed dog food into his dinner -- a practical joke intended to "humble" him, the department's investigative report said, for "declaring himself Big Dog" in a volleyball game.

Pierce sued the city for racial harassment last year, after enduring what he describes as months of taunts and retaliation. The City Council voted to settle his case for $2.7 million last month, but, after a public uproar, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa vetoed the settlement.

Pierce's claim and its repercussions -- a respected fire department unmasked; a popular fire chief dispatched; a racially divided populace at odds -- unhinged the city and unmoored the man.

"I didn't expect it to go the way it went," said Pierce, whose public claim and private life -- from his work habits to the state of his marriage -- provided weeks of fodder for talk radio programs. Hosts such as John Kobylt and Ken Chiampou on KFI-AM (640) fielded dozens of calls from disgruntled white firefighters, who castigated Pierce for "playing the race card" and produced photos of him joining in the hazing of others.

The storm took Pierce by surprise. "I always felt I was part of a great brotherhood," he said. "I know I have always been upright and fair. When I see how the masses turned on me...." He shrugs his giant shoulders and stares at the floor.

For some, he's become a caricature -- a big, strong, black man brought down by a couple of bites of dog food. But to his friends and family, the reality is considerably more complicated.

"The Fire Department was Tennie's life," said L.A. firefighter and friend Johnny Green. "He would much rather be at work than going through this foolishness."

Pierce knows those photos of him standing over firefighters smeared with condiments and shaving cream made him a lightning rod for criticism. But the pranks weren't done to hurt anyone, he said. "Basically, it's a celebration of love. It's your birthday, your last day at the station.... I've never heard a guy say, 'Stop. Don't do this to me.' "

But Green said Pierce was one of relatively few black firefighters who participated in hazing rituals. "He assimilated with those guys" at his station, Green said. He went on ski trips with them, helped work on their houses, spent his days off with them riding Harleys.

"That's why the betrayal he feels is so strong," Green said. "He's the O.J. of the Fire Department."

*

Recognized by strangers

Pierce is 6 feet 5 and weighs more than 250 pounds, so it's hard for him to hide. Strangers recognize him at the gym, at his daughter's school. People he doesn't know feel free to scold him.

"There are all those people out there casting stones," he said. "Reporters standing on my porch, [confronting] my daughter coming home from school."

His lawsuit has not only angered many whites but has also divided black firefighters and made Pierce a pariah among men who were his friends.

The black firefighters organization the Stentorians has refused to back his lawsuit. "Right case, wrong guy," one black captain said. Because Pierce participated in hazing rituals, supporting Pierce would undercut the group's official stance that "no member be subjected to any form of unprofessional behavior or practices in the workplace."

The rift is hard for Pierce to bear, Green said. "He's a teddy bear. Did he have fun and play games? Yeah. Hazing, condiments ... that was all good-natured fun. Tennie did that real well."

The dog food was another matter. There are three rules that every firefighter knows, Green and others say. "You don't mess with people's family, you don't mess with their safety equipment, you don't mess with their food," Green said. "What they did to him crossed the line."

Pierce has been off work now -- relying on a combination of sick leave, disability, vacation and administrative leave -- for more than a year, collecting a portion of his salary while he spends his days working out, visiting doctors and therapists, and helping out at his daughter's track practices.

The enforced idleness has been hard on their marriage, his wife says. Pierce is often irritable and unable to sleep, ashamed that he must rely on his wife's salary to support the family.

His case is headed for trial next year, though city officials could offer another settlement. But his career as a firefighter is over, he said.

Pierce denied rumors that he has been visiting other cities to look for a firefighting job. "I'm 51. My body is beat up," he said. He wants to go back to college "and start my life over again."

*

Football career envisioned

Born and raised in South Los Angeles, Pierce left Cal State Northridge five credits shy of graduation, he said, envisioning a pro football career. He said he was signed by the Denver Broncos but was injured during a preseason game in 1980 and never played during a regular season.

He married and had two children, then divorced and wound up with custody of his infant daughter and toddler son. He was working as a pipe fitter when a friend told him that the Los Angeles Fire Department -- then under a consent decree mandating the hiring of minorities -- had openings. He joined the department in 1987.

A year later, his daughter, then 5, was diagnosed with a brain tumor. His older sister moved in with him to help care for the child, who was bedridden, had a tracheotomy tube in her throat and needed twice-daily trips from Inglewood to UCLA for treatment. She died in 1989, just after her sixth birthday. His son is now 26.

The next year, Pierce remarried, and the couple later adopted a 3-year-old girl. His wife watched him throw himself into his work; the demands of his new job seemed to help ease his grief, she said.

"It meant learning a new language and a new way of thinking, a whole different culture," Pierce said.

Pranks and hazing were a part of that culture. In his first station assignment in the San Fernando Valley, Pierce got a taste, and made a choice.

"We were practicing knots," he recalled, "and somebody laid a noose right in front of my locker." He threw it in the trash without telling anybody.

"You want the job so bad, you don't want to stir the pot," Pierce said. "You go up there and tell the captain, then the captain calls everybody into the kitchen and now I've created a hostile work environment for myself."

Nor did he complain later, when a buddy sprinkled flour in his bed, leaving his dark skin dusted white. "It wasn't mean," he said. "It was like that old saying, 'Boys will be boys.' "

"People criticize him [now] for complaining," said his lawyer, Genie Harrison. "But Tennie's got 17 years of doing nothing but laughing about the jokes that were played on him."

Pierce said he was so shocked and ashamed when his station mates confessed that they had tricked him into eating dog food that he didn't even tell his wife when he went home.

Then the calls from other black firefighters "started coming through on my home phone.... 'Hey, Pierce, I heard what happened.... I'm glad it was you and not me, because if it happened to me, there'd be people in the hospital.' That's how my wife found out."

The news traveled quickly through the department, he said. Firefighters began teasing him, calling him 'dog food boy,' barking like a dog when he walked by.

Pierce decided to sue, he said, only when the environment became unbearable. "I've been on this department for a long time. I've done everything they've ever asked me to do," he said.

"All I asked for was three things: transfer me, do a thorough investigation, let me have some kind of psychological help to deal with this."

He received got counseling and was transferred, but was later ordered back to the Westchester station.

And although the Fire Department's records show that the battalion chief overseeing the Westchester station did, indeed, call for a full investigation, Deputy Chief Andrew Fox, who heads the department's disciplinary division, rejected that recommendation. Instead, he relied on firefighters' written statements to administer three suspensions ranging from six days to one month off without pay.

The fallout is still reverberating through the city's fire stations. "There are 3,600 firefighters that love the Los Angeles Fire Department and want it to have a sterling reputation," said Pat McOsker, former president of the firefighters union. "They are heartbroken that a handful of incidents are dragging us through the mud.

"The natural tendency is to be mad at those responsible: 'Why couldn't you just suffer this silently?' " he said. "I'm not saying that's right, but that's what happens."

Green said Pierce is heartbroken too. "He really was the Big Dog

"I'm sad for Tennie, that's he's got to go through this, change his phone numbers, move his kid's school," Green said. "But this case needs to go to court so people will see what it's like for African Americans."

*

sandy.banks@latimes.com

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
62°