Navarre Henkel and Bob Reynolds did not wear boots, only work shoes, when they began fighting fires. Now both leave such large boots to fill.
Henkel and Reynolds joined the Fennimore Fire Department on Feb. 6, 1973. Both retired on Feb. 9.
Two men. Eighty years of experience and service.
“It is sad to lose them,” Fennimore Fire Chief Dan Digman said.
For Henkel, joining the fire department over 40 years ago was an easy decision.
“My brothers were on the fire department and both had 15 years experience each,” he said. “I worked right there beside the fire station and I lived right below the fire station.
“I always wanted to do it.”
Henkel was witness to many changes to the fire department in 40 years, specifically in the equipment used to fight fires.
“The trucks, the gear, all your boots, helmets, coats,” Henkel said. “That is all way different now.”
What was it like fighting fires 40 years ago? “Tough,” Henkel summarized.
“You had coats and a hat, but that was about basically it for a while, until we got boots,” Henkel said. “It was a lot different than it is today.
“The coats, boots, helmets and everything are safer now, OSHA approved. Years ago we had rubber coats, which you wouldn’t use them anymore.”
A 750 gallon pumper fire truck was common in 1973, but has long since been replaced. A 1,500 gallon pumper fire truck is not out of the ordinary today.
It wasn’t uncommon for Henkel, Reynolds and the fire department to respond to 60 or more fires a year when their careers began.
“Back then we had a lot of wood burning stoves,” Henkel said. “We would have a lot of grass fires, some days three or four a day.”
The fire department called the Memorial Building its home starting in the early 1950s. Eventually the department began to experience growing pains, Henkel recalled.
“We could only buy a certain size truck because they wouldn’t get into the station,” he said. “When we got the new station, that was like heaven.”
Henkel was instrumental in forming the building committee for the new fire station on 8th Street.
“I felt that we needed it because we were getting outgrown,” he said. “We couldn’t add on and we had no place to expand. We only had so much room.
“We couldn’t add any more trucks because there was no more place to go. We decided we just had to do something.”
Henkel, who served 24 years as an officer for the Fennimore Fire Department, always enjoyed the company of his fellow firefighters.
“We always seemed to get along,” he said. “It was fun.”
Much like the Fennimore Emergency Medical Services squad, the Fennimore Fire Department has battled dwindling enrollment in recent years.
“It is harder to get firefighters now,” Henkel said. “We used to have a long waiting list, and now it’s getting tougher.
“Now you have to take all the training. So, you got to spend hours in training and it takes time. Yes, I took all the training too even though I didn’t have to. I thought, ‘if my firemen got to take it I’m going to take it.’”
Henkel said it is tough for young members of the fire department to juggle their families and the time required for training.
“It’s just like the rescue squad,” he said.
When asked if he had advice for those considering joining the fire department, he drew upon 40 years of experience to answer.
“You either got to want to be a fireman or you don’t,” he said. “It’s something if you want it bad enough, you will do it.”
When asked if any memorable fire calls came to mind, Henkel recalled a fire at Fenmore Hills.
“It gutted it,” he said. “The wind was blowing about 30 or 40 miles an hour against us.
“One time on Christmas Eve we had a barn fire and on Christmas Day we had a shed fire. We had a house fire the day before that. It was taking a toll on us.”
Of his 24 years as an officer with the Fennimore Fire Department, Henkel spent 17 of those as fire chief.
“The biggest thing with being chief is you worry about your firemen,” he said. “We are volunteers and it isn’t like a job where you can tell someone, ‘you are going to do this.’
“You had to work with them, you just had to be friends. You couldn’t yell or get mad at them, they were just volunteering their time.”
The Fennimore Fire Department routinely met each Tuesday night during Henkel’s tenure and continues to do so.
“We do it because you can practice more,” he said. “So we can go out and show people how to run the trucks and do things.
“If you only meet one night or two nights a month, like some departments, it isn’t enough time.”
In a career full of fond memories, Henkel would care to forget the many automobile accidents he responded to throughout the years.
“That was the worst,” he said. “A house fire is bad enough, but when someone gets hurt or killed, that is the worst.
“What can you say? You probably knew the people.”
Henkel recalled an automobile accident south of Fennimore that required the assistance of the Lancaster Jaws of Life.
“We didn’t have any, and that is when we decided to have a steak feed,” he said. “It was through good community support we had money to buy the Jaws and we also bought the truck.
“All that we bought with what we raised that one steak feed. The first steak feed, it was something.”
If he could do it all over again, Henkel would, in a heartbeat.
“I enjoyed it,” he said. “It was a good time.”
For Reynolds, 40 years can go by in the blink of an eye.
“It doesn’t seem like it was 40 years,” he said. “When you think about it now.”
When the Fennimore Fire Department asked for new volunteer members 40 years ago, Reynolds felt inclined to join.
“They needed people and I was always around town, so it worked pretty good that way,” Reynolds said.
Reynolds also remembered battling a fire in which stiff winds did the firefighters no favors.
“We had a barn fire out north of town one time,” he said. “There were pretty strong winds and within an hour it was completely gone.
“I was up on the ridge and all I could see was the black smoke.”
Reynolds spent 16 years as an officer for the Fennimore Fire Department, including seven years as First Assistant Chief.
After 40 years, Reynolds will fight the urge to spring to action when the fire siren blows.
“You can sit back and relax,” he said.
Joining Henkel and Reynolds in retirement is Marcus James, who joined the Fennimore Fire Department on Nov. 8, 1994. He retired Dec. 4.
“In Navarre, Bob and Marcus retiring, we are losing a lot of years of service,” Digman said. “They all will be missed.”