Joe Mobley, 63, said he never needed any help.
A retired Cedar Hill firefighter, he made a career of putting out others’ fires, literally.
“I liked helping people,” Mobley said.
But for several years, he lived with a gaping hole in his kitchen floor, no running water in the kitchen and an opening in the gable of his roof that gave wild animals access to his one-bedroom home along Straus Road.
“One day, raccoons came in through the roof and were sitting there eating Cheetos. I always thought it was a myth, but it happened,” Battalion Chief Richard Dixon said. “He’s not been able to do a lot for awhile, and that’s how this happened. ... It’s amazing how you can let your house go.”
Since November, Dixon and about 30 other firefighters have worked to renovate Mobley’s house — a 1940s-era home that sits along a two-lane roadway. Mobley has lived along Straus Road for nearly half his life. He was raised until age 13 in a neighboring house. His grandparents lived in his current home until he moved in 1992. The Mobleys are one of the city’s founding families.
In October, Mobley had surgery on his neck, the aftermath of a previous injury. Because he never married and lives alone, he was placed in a full-care facility while he healed. Now, he gets around with a walker.
Mostly deaf from years of firetruck sirens, he also received cochlear implants. It’s still difficult for him to hear. He relies on reading lips and people writing questions on a yellow notepad he keeps on his coffee table.
While he was gone, Dixon and other firefighters regularly came to his home to care for his Chihuahua. That’s when they uncovered the extent of the dilapidated conditions, Dixon said.
“[Joe] wasn’t going to ask for help. [Firefighters] are very proud people. When we saw this, there was no asking. … It was, ‘How do we fix this?’” Dixon said. “Firefighters across the country do this kind of stuff. We’re not more special than anybody else. This is what we do. We’re in the giving business.”
Now, a new wood floor in the kitchen and roof covers the holes. Water runs from the kitchen sink. New countertops and cabinets flank the kitchen. A ramp outside helps Mobley enter the house with his walker. A shower replaces the tub in the bathroom — an add-on to the original 1940s wooden house.
“If you stood right there, where the floor was, you’d go right through the floor,” said Drew Harris, a driver for the department, as he pointed to the now-tiled bathroom floor. “The tub was right there, and all around it was just rotten [wood].”
Nearly two months later, the new paint smell still lingers from the freshly painted walls, each a different pastel hue.
“Y’all did all this. I’m just an innocent bystander,” said Mobley to Dixon and fellow firefighters from his seat on a new blue couch. “I like what they’ve done here. ... I wasn’t expecting the changes.”
The Cedar Hill Professional Fire Fighters Association poured more than $5,000 into the project. Grand Prairie firefighter Thomas Ziolkowski, who also works for a construction company, helped with the roof and renovations and Fort Worth-based CSI Renovations donated materials and labor for the roof.
“We’re a jack-of-all-trades, master of none. We have guys who know just enough to get the job done, but it might not be the best job,” Dixon said. “But look, we have running water here. He can live here now.”
Residents donated pots and pans, dishes and towels. Much of the home was furnished from Craigslist finds bought by senior firefighter Traci Hemminger for her rental homes. Hemminger and Dixon have known Mobley since they joined the department 16 years ago. Mobley was one of Dixon’s first mentors when he joined the force.
Though the department has a number of retired firefighters, Dixon said Mobley has the most health problems.
“That’s our department’s tradition right there,” said Dixon, pointing to Mobley.
Mobley joined the department before there were any paid firefighters, starting as a volunteer in 1974 when the city had only one fire station. To make money, he helped manage an old Brookshire’s grocery store.
In 1981, he became the city’s first paid firefighter. The department kept its volunteer fleet until 2000, when it became a strictly paid force. He retired in 2003 as a firefighter and paramedic.
Even after he retired, he continued to work as a rope instructor. Several firefighters found training manuals and books while renovating his home.
Tucked in his closet and home are remnants of his firefighter days. There’s the plans for Station No. 2 and a plaque from its ribbon cutting. A small strip of worn, red ribbon is attached to the bottom of the plaque.
“He has so much tradition and history here, and now we’re finding it,” Dixon said.
Nearly a decade after his retirement, Mobley continued to visit one station each day, often during mealtime.
“When he didn’t show up, we had to send somebody over to check on him,” Harris said.
And firefighters are still coming to his home regularly, bringing him food and finishing repairs.
On a recent Monday morning, Dixon and Harris met at Mobley’s home to patch a hole in his bedroom ceiling. Hemminger helped unload boxes and fold clothes.
Hemminger said the department never expected the project to linger for months.
“We got in here, and it was just way, way worse conditions than we thought. The house was literally falling down,” Hemminger said. “A few years earlier, we had come over a couple times to clean, but it wasn’t this bad as far as no running water.”
But Harris said he knew at first sight the project would drag for more than the originally estimated three days.
And it’s still not complete.
Many of Mobley’s clothes rest in heaps in his bedroom while work finishes on his closet. After finding animal nests in the walls, firefighters sheetrocked the house. The closet is one of the last to be completed.
“That’s a problem because if a mouse or something gets in the attic, it’s in the house,” said Dixon, pointing to a hole in the closet ceiling. “That’s why we ended up sheetrocking the whole house.”
Mobley’s bathroom is still missing its door, which was removed during the renovation.
Car parts and miscellaneous tinkering projects litter his backyard.
“That is our next challenge,” Hemminger said. “This has been a whole labor of love. He’s a family member.”
Reporter Nanette Light can be reached at 214-977-8039.