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'This Place Saved My Life': Chicago Firefighter Antwan Dobson Shares His Story Of How Others Helped Him Achieve His Dreams

CHICAGO (CBS) -- As we celebrate Black History Month, this is the story of a little boy living in poverty who had a dream to become a Chicago firefighter.

As CBS 2's Jim Williams reported Thursday, that dream came true, thanks his hard work and the extraordinary kindness of men and women, Black and white, at one firehouse on the West Side.

Even 40 years later, the memories are still fresh and overwhelming.

"This place saved my life," said Antwan Dobson. He spoke at the firehouse on California Avenue at Fillmore Street, Engine 107. As a child, he found a second home there.

"Jim, when I tell you they were there, they were really there - way beyond the scope of service that's expected of them," Dobson told CBS 2's Williams.

Today, he is Fire Lt. Antwan Dobson, himself an 17-year veteran of the Chicago Fire Department. It is his life's work.

"Better than winning the lottery - and I mean that literally," Dobson said. "I'm actually living a childhood dream."

It was a dream kindled by his walks to Engine 107, where he'd stand by the doors, day after day - alone. He wasn't yet 10 years old.

"I was hanging out on the outside, just hoping and wishing to be able to walk in and one day," Dobson said. "One of the firemen goes 'Hey, you come here a lot. Why don't you come on in?'"

It was a life-changing invitation. Doboson, an only child, didn't know his father. His mother had him when she was 16 and gave Antwan to a friend to raise. He lived in extreme poverty.

"There were days in the middle of winter when we didn't have heat. We'd have to heat our homes with kerosene heaters," remembered Dobson. "Sometimes we didn't have good running water. I'd have to go down to the basement to fill out empty milk jugs of water for everything from bathing to cooking."

The firefighters at Engine 107 became surrogate parents. They shared meals with him and gave him chores. They checked his homework - and when he strained to see the blackboard at school, they dug into their pockets.

"I was having headaches in school," Dobson said. "I had two - now they're retired chiefs - gave me a $100 (and said), 'Go get you some glasses.'"

The visits went on for years. Linda Turner, who would become Chicago's first Black female battalion chief, was a mentor.

"She was like a mother to me. Made sure I was in school. Made sure I stayed out of trouble. She did not play," said Dobson with a laugh.

Mark Nielsen was there, too. He would become a deputy fire commissioner and a lifelong friend.

"Antwan was destined to succeed. He really was," Nielsen said. "He was a polite young man, and I knew he was going to go places."

Antwan Dobson today is now the mentor, tutoring young Black men and women through the Black Fire Brigade. And when he rolls through the South and West sides, he sees a little boy whose dream came true with the help of some kind friends.

"Just me riding in the front seat in the fire truck and see a little kid - fascinated as we drive by. We're at a stop light and they give me the whole, 'Honk the horn!,'" Dobson said. "I'm more than happy to make as much noise as they want, because I was that kid."

Antwan has not one, but two master's degrees. He's now studying for the Fire Department's captain's exam.

Those firefighters used check his report card are no doubt proud now.

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