Published: June 23, 2013
Forest Supervisor Jerri Marr has heard the compliments - how confident, how calm, how hopeful and compassionate she was during the Waldo Canyon fire as she gave residents updates, directions and even organized a Smokey Bear Cares outreach for frightened kids.
After the fire, awards and thanks flooded in from the Army, the National Association of Black Journalists, the U.S. Olympic Committee and other groups. There is even a sandwich, with everything on it, named for her.
She is the face of the U.S. Forest Service's efforts at the Waldo Canyon fire.
She said that helping manage her first complex fire as supervisor of the 3.5 million acres of Pike and San Isabel national forests and Comanche and Cimarron national grasslands came with the job.
At times, she gives a humor-tinged, down-home reality check to all that personal praise. People who meet her exclaim, "You're the fire lady."
"Yes, I am," she tells them. "And I'm also Jerri. Nice to meet you."
But this mantle that she wears rather uneasily has had a silver lining: drawing attention to the good work that the Forest Service does, and enabling her to inspire others, including at-risk women and youth.
"We share our experiences. I grow by sharing mine and hearing about theirs," she says.
And it is in these public talks more than any formal interview that a portrait of her emerges.
That camaraderie was evident recently when she spoke to low-income women at a Women's Community Leadership Initiative event in Colorado Springs.
"Oh my gosh, they absolutely loved her," said Susan Saksa, executive director. "She was compelling and funny, and connected with the women. Afterwards they all rushed up to take pictures with her."
It was the same at the Women Helping Women event, hosted by the El Paso County Department of Human Services, for women transitioning off public assistance into jobs.
"She inspired them all and got tons of applause. I was motivated, too," said Jennifer Brown, department spokeswoman.
The topic was self-confidence.
"Even if you are not feeling that confident, act like you are. I do it all the time," Marr told them.
"You remember the picture of 65 mile-an-hour winds and fire burning at the back of my head and I'm going, 'How are you all? It's going to be OK. We are going to get through this. Now listen. I want you all to leave quickly.'" She continued, "Yes, confidence.
"I'm thinking if I had stood there and went 'Hhhuuh, RUUUUNNNN,' I'm kind of thinking it wouldn't have had the same effect. What do you think?"
She gave credit to others. "As a team of leaders we stood there with utmost confidence, because we believed in the skill set of those folks behind us.''
In her own early life, that confidence didn't blossom so easily. Born in the Bronx, and later living in Tennessee, her family "was poorer than dirt." When her parents came home in the evening from doing various jobs, they went to the grocery store. "If they made a lot we had two things to eat."
She was bored and hated school and thus was branded "low potential." Her siblings came home with great report cards and she would hide hers in her school locker.
Once, she heard her mother bragging on all the children except her. "It was the deepest hurt. They had great aspirations for everyone except me."
But, she said, it was actually the most incredible chapter of her life. "I made a decision that day that I didn't care if the world didn't believe in me, I believed in myself."
She ended up being the first among her siblings to graduate college. In high school, she participated in 4-H leadership camps and judging teams that focused on forestry and wildlife. The networking led to a full scholarship at the University of Tennessee to study forestry and natural resources, she said. She graduated in 1992.
The summer after high school she worked for the Forest Service in Oregon as part of the scholarship program.
"I've been with the Forest Service ever since."
During her more than 26 years with the agency, she has worked in various capacities in Washington, California, Alabama, Florida, West Virginia and Ohio.
She had been in her current post about 18 months when the Waldo Canyon fire erupted.
She had worked on fires before, in different roles. But that was her first time as supervisor to manage a firefight that had so many high-risk problems.
She had been at the Springer fire south of Lake George earlier in June, sleeping on the ground, and was headed back after the fire was out, she told an audience at Woodmen Valley Chapel in January.
She was nearing Divide when, "I looked out and saw this column of smoke and I said to myself, 'Somebody ain't going home tonight.'
"It was at that moment that I did what I do every day, every day before I go to work. I pray the same prayer. 'God help me be the leader that you called me to be. Watch over us and protect us. Guide my every step. God I can't do this without you and I don't want to.'" After the fire was over, several church leaders told her, "God called you to our city."
Christian author Beth Vogt, who was at the talk at Woodmen Valley Chapel, said on her website, "Jerri Marr is a hope-filled woman. She doesn't view the world through rose-colored glasses. Her job won't allow for that. But she does walk life out with faith."
Marr shies from discussing this side of her life, which she said is not something to talk about in an interview in her capacity as a Forest Service representative.
She also is not interested in revealing much about her personal life, offering only a glimpse of who she is beyond her Forest Service title.
She is single and has two kids, but won't say more, wanting to protect their privacy, she says.
"I don't like to focus on my personal life," she says.
On more professional footing, she says she loves what she does. "I am honored to have the position and serve the American people to the best of my ability as manager of our inheritance."
Every work day at Forest Service headquarters in Pueblo is different. Some days she is in the field looking over issues and projects, other days she is meeting with officials from other government entities, doing office work.
Days are long, but when she is off duty, she likes to play all kinds of music - on percussion, bass, guitar. She's an avid photographer. "Everyone and everything has a story and history, and for me, photography gives me the venue to experience that."
It's clear why she has chosen to be a protector of our natural places.
"Our lives are so busy. We are always on the go and when we connect with nature, we slow down and reconnect with ourselves and what is important in life. We all need that."
Contact Carol McGraw: 636-0371