TARPON SPRINGS — When Cynthia Horodnik walked into a fire station here for the first time 23 years ago, she didn't get a warm welcome.
The new employee got dirty looks — because she was the only woman there.
On one wall was a newspaper story about a Tampa policeman who was shot and killed while his partner, a woman, survived. One of the firefighters had highlighted the word "woman" throughout the article.
The firefighter asked Horodnik, "If you were being attacked in a back alley, who would you want to show up, a female or a male?"
She replied, "Um, someone with a gun?"
Confronted by that kind of animosity, Tarpon Springs' first female firefighter wanted to quit but didn't. Instead, she paved the way for other women.
On Thursday, Lt. Horodnik, 51, worked her final day with Tarpon Springs Fire Rescue before retiring. She was promoted to lieutenant in 2007.
Everyone from fellow firefighters to the fire chief gathered at Station 69, cracking jokes and reminiscing on her last day. During her career, Horodnik became a valued member of the city's firefighting fraternity.
"She's less like a boss and more like a friend," said firefighter Michael Stone, a member of her crew. "It was definitely a man's world when she started."
Another firefighter in her crew, Cliff Dancy, trusted her instincts: "I never doubted her. I know she knows how to do her job."
Fire Chief Richard Butcher has known Horodnik since she was hired. She brought change to the department in more ways than one: She was the reason the other firefighters had to start wearing gym shorts at night, he recalled.
"Before that, you basically slept in your underwear," Butcher said.
In the beginning, Horodnik had to wear boots and bunker gear that were too big for her, because there was no equipment designed for a woman. In those early years, the weight of a firefighter's helmet was heavier, too, making it more difficult for a woman to wear.
"She met the same standard as any other firefighter without stumbling," Butcher said. "You never got a sense of entitlement from her … but she did go out and earn it. She earned the respect."
Horodnik got involved in a variety of special programs. She became a certified fire clown to work with children on fire safety, and she worked with young burn victims at a camp held each year by the Children's Burn Foundation of Florida.
She was in charge of the fire department's holiday food basket program for the needy and Santa Tours, in which a firefighter dressed like Santa rides a fire truck and hands out candy and toys to children.
She was named Tarpon Springs' firefighter of the year in 2005.
Co-workers describe her as modest. "She doesn't seek any credit or limelight," said Jane Kniffen, Tarpon's human resources director.
Now that Horodnik has retired, Charlene West is the department's only female firefighter.
"She was an excellent mentor for me," West said. "Her starting here made it easier for me to be here."
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Horodnik had pondered retirement for a while.
"It's just the right time," she said. "And my knees are shot."
From old age, she joked.
On Thursday, Horodnik packed up personal items from her bunk with the help of her daughter, Hannah Parker, 23. Her French-manicured nails reached out for the final item — a pink radio holder that she had once ordered online.
"I couldn't use it because it's pink," she said. Firefighters use black radio holders.
Horodnik's farewell speech was cut short when she started tearing up. An entire room of firefighters and police officers clapped. Everyone's pagers buzzed with the same message that was sent countywide from central dispatch:
"Congratulations to Cindy Horodnik on retirement after 23 years of service with Tarpon Springs Fire Rescue."
Diedra Rodriguez can be reached at (727) 445-4154 or [email protected] To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.