One often hears the term ‘unsung hero’ bandied about and it’s certain that there are many of them among us.
One of those who definitely fits the bill is Bernie Couey, who was a longtime Richland County Coroner and EMT.
Now retired and living in Richland Center with his wife Alberta and their energetic little Chihuahua Toby, Couey will be honored at a reception at the Richland County Board Room in the Courthouse from 2-4 p.m. on Thursday, Aug. 18.
Among those who are hosting the reception is current Richland County Coroner Mary Turner, who said of Couey, “He always went out of his way.”
Well before he was an EMT and coroner Couey grew up on the Blue River dairy farm of his parents Harley and Alma Couey, the second of three sons. When asked if he helped with the farm work, Couey responded, “I’m afraid so!” However, unlike his younger brother Armin (Joyce) Couey, who still lives on the family farm, Couey didn’t wish to farm for a living. (The eldest brother, Eugene, is deceased, but his widow Ethel still resides in Richland Center.)
During World War II, Eugene got drafted and so Bernie was deferred as a farm worker. But, as fate would have it, Eugene was disqualified due to medical reasons and Bernie got drafted after all. However, by the time he left for basic training, it was Sept. 1945 and the war was over. Still, he served until Feb. 1947, at first briefly in Japan but for most of the time in Korea. Although war had not yet broken out there, Couey said there was much tension between North and South Korea. He was placed on walking guard duty and had a grueling schedule of four hours on and two hours off every day for months on end. “I saw little of the country,” he said. “I didn’t get out much.”
Four months after his return stateside, in June 1947, Couey married the Blue River minister’s daughter, Carol Thompson, who passed away in 1995. They had four children, Margaret, Michael, Bonita and William, the youngest of whom is the only one who lives in the local area. Couey has four grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
When he first returned, Couey worked a couple of months at the Celon Company in Madison, which made labels for various products, and made the princely sum of $1.35 per hour. However, he accepted a job at Richland Co-op Creamery for less than half that wage, 62 ½ cents per hour, because he no longer had to drive to Madison and because his girlfriend lived in this area. He remained at that job 42 years, although the name changed to Wisconsin Dairies and later to Foremost Farms. His last day was on Christmas 1988.
In late 1972, Couey became an EMT (emergency medical technician) after taking 120 hours of training, although he continued to take additional training all along for recertification until he retired from EMT service in 2000. Additionally, he taught CPR and First Aid at Southwest Wisconsin Technical College from 1976-2000.
Although postal employees are credited – and rightly so – for getting the mail through whether snow or gloom of night, EMTs must as well, and often with someone’s life or death in the balance. Couey said EMTs are called any time of day or night and no matter what the weather. He said, “I even went by snowmobile. Once, the ambulance slid off a bank and, when a UPS driver came upon the scene, he was pressed into duty to get us to the person in need.”
And, Couey pointed out, when an EMT is on duty – which is most of the time – they are on call and expected to respond within three minutes of the call. He said, “Many holidays were disrupted and I ruined good clothes. There was no time to change. It interrupts your life. I couldn’t even go bowling. You have to appreciate your family for putting up with it.” In Couey’s case, his first wife Carol, a grade school teacher, served as an EMT with him for 10 years.
In 1978, Couey became Deputy Coroner and two years later ran for that post. He was elected and continued to serve in that capacity until 2000. After that, he served a couple of years as Deputy Coroner under Coroner Bill Shireman, who’d been Couey’s Deputy Coroner. Then, he really and truly retired.
In order to do as good a job as possible as Coroner, Couey took all training that was available, in addition to the initial state training. Among those who taught the training was now-retired forensic pathologist Dr. Robert Huntington. Couey said, “He was always open to calls and has a fantastic memory.”
As Coroner, Couey had to respond to the scenes of human death, whether of natural causes, accidents, or murder. “The worst was dealing with children,” he said. As Coroner, Couey would attempt to make a determination of cause of death, but, if he couldn’t, an autopsy would be called for. Another aspect of the job, he said, is consulting with families of the deceased, often during a time of great stress. In addition to responding within the county, Couey said, the Coroner must respond to deaths that take place in hospitals outside the county if the death happened in the county.
Couey acknowledges assistance he received from his deputies, including Mary Turner, ambulance secretary Jeanne Rice, and Peggy Peterson of Vital Statistics in Madison, who was, he said, “a great source of information.”
On times of vacation from EMT and Coroner duties, Couey traveled to all 48 contiguous states by motorcycle. “I always had a motorcycle,” he said. “At first, I had Goldwings, but, after they got too heavy for me, I got a Harley Sportster.” At this point, Alberta chimed in, saying, “It’s for sale!”
Couey also has a pilot’s license, initially received in 1950 through the G.I. Bill. He belonged to the Flying Club at Sextonville, but notes that he didn’t fly while his kids were growing up, due to insurance liability issues. But, after they were grown, he resumed flying and kept at it until 2000.
He also enjoyed woodworking and his home is decorated with some of his handiwork.
A life member of both the American Legion and the VFW, Couey has his name on a flagstone at the American Legion Flag Park and has a stone with his name on it planted beneath a tree in North Park. He also demonstrates his patriotism by flying a large flag in front of his apartment. He and his wife Alberta may be familiar to readers as the Senior Royalty of the 2003 Richland County Fair.
Alberta, the widow of Marvin Chellevold, has two sons and two daughters, none of whom live in the Richland Center area. She also has seven grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.
Apparently thinking he’s an only “child” is Chihuahua Toby, who is much loved by his human parents. What he may lack in size he makes up for in bravery, making it clear that he is the guard dog of the Couey household.
But, after he sees that a visitor means no harm, he is content to settle down in his special spot and maybe munch on a treat.