Today marks the first anniversary of the death of Nogales Firefighter Sterling Lytle. Last year, his family made the heartbreaking decision to take him off life support after doctors at U.M.C. informed them the severe trauma which came as the result of being struck by a vehicle on June 28th, rendered him brain-dead.
“I never really understood death until Sterling was lost,” said Sterling’s mother, Sarah Barcello. Despite their terrible and sudden loss, Sterling’s family is choosing on this day to focus on the positive and simply remember the time they had with him; the gift that they and countless others all received from God.
Talking with Sarah, her husband Casey and Sterling’s grandmother Cleo, memories of Sterling’s life of servitude were in abundance, each of them highlighting the character of a man who thrived by enriching the lives of those around him.
Sarah recalled a formative memory with her son, when he was just four years old. She had taken Sterling to volunteer at a shelter on Thanksgiving, where he handed out glasses of water to the homeless. At the end of that day, Sterling tearfully expressed his appreciation for everything he and his mother had. It was from such a spirit of gratitude that he lived.
Summers would find Sterling volunteering; as a lifeguard at the Ft. Lowell swimming pool, at the Pima Air & Space Museum, at Catalina High School’s JROTC, and especially as a firefighter.
Sterling worked as a Hangar Docent, logging 350 hours at Pima Air. Sarah went to pick him up one day but an employee told her to wait. Sarah said, “They told me not to interrupt him, because he was giving a tour. He was only about 12 years old and he was giving a tour!” Veterans who had met Sterling at the museum would call Sarah to express their thankfulness for her son, who was so attentive while he listened to their stories. “He could relate to anyone,” Sarah said. “He was a great listener. He could talk with WWII vets on their level.”
Sterling also loved to work with kids. Beyond his volunteer work as a JROTC instructor, he continued his relationship with the boy scouts, and would loan out his oxygen tanks and other firefighter gear to his old troop. He was just one badge short of becoming an Eagle Scout when he decided to become a pilot. It annoyed her terribly, but Sarah understood that Sterling didn’t care about accolades. In fact, he had turned down a full scholarship at Texas A&M because he wanted to remain close to his grandmother.
“He would come over often,” Cleo said, laughing, “He would always fall asleep at my house …I was always throwing a blanket on him.”
Small wonder, since Sterling’s work ethic made most look lazy. His resume bears witness to the fact. Even so, all his interests paled in comparison to his lifelong dream of becoming a firefighter. He studied fire science and emergency medical technology at Pima Community College. True to form, he went on to volunteer at Helmet Peak, where he was quickly promoted to Training Captain. He also worked as an E.M.T. instructor at P.C.C. Any time he would receive a phone call from his mother while teaching his class, Sterling would hold up his phone to all his students and shout, “Say hello to my mother, class!” To which the class would respond in unison, “Hello, Sterling’s mom!”
“The first time I didn’t have to call [to wake him up on time] was when he was with the Nogales Fire Department,” Sarah said.
Sterling achieved his childhood dream of becoming a firefighter in November, 2011. With his enthusiasm and commitment, he was loved by everyone at the station. The firefighters there gave him the nickname “Pequino”, a term of endearment for the rookie whose last name was often mispronounced. His name and badge number are written across the front of what’s been deemed “Sterling’s truck” under the words, “Gone but not forgotten.”
Sterling’s volunteer work and his great heart that made him relate so well to others made him a great instructor for many people who carry with them the lessons he shared, as a teacher and mentor. His work with others was always colored with his big heart, and he is best remembered as a loyal friend.
“He never liked seeing people sad,” said Erin, a long-time friend of Sterling’s. “He would do anything to cheer a friend up.”
This included anything from being a shoulder to cry on and having an ear to bend at any hour of the day or night, to his famous Arnold Schwarzenegger impersonations and an array of goofball antics that to this day will bring a smile to the faces of those who knew him best. His mother described him as having an old soul.
“He loved to make others laugh,” Sarah said. “He lived more than any of us can dream of living.”
In memorial of Sterling, the Margaret E. Mooney Foundation established the Sterling Lytle Memorial Scholarship Endowment to benefit E.M.T. students and Fire Science programs at P.C.C. This plaque is displayed at the entrance to the E.M.T. lab at P.C.C. East Campus