Remembering the fallen heroes: St. Paul Park family pays tribute to father
The last Sunday in September may be ordinary to most Minnesota families, but for those whose loved ones fight fires for a living it’s a somber day of reflection and remembrance.
For the second year in a row, hundreds gathered recently at the newly installed Minnesota Fallen Firefighters Memorial on the state Capitol grounds to pay tribute to those who gave their lives protecting others. The chimes of the memorial bell echoed throughout the mall marking the deaths of 208 Minnesota firefighters, one of which was St. Paul Park fireman Charles Whitbred, Jr. The son of a fire chief, Whitbred died of a heart attack in 1962 after battling a grocery store fire.
Destined for a life of service
Known as Charlie, Whitbred was a born-and-raised St. Paul Park man with a passion for service and sports.
At a young age, Whitbred joined the Marine Corps where he was stationed in San Francisco. Before marrying his wife, Delores, he served as a prison guard in the military. While he never ventured overseas and didn’t talk often of his time in the military, the three-year career set Whitbred up for a life dedicated to serving others.
In 1949, when he returned from active duty, Whitbred and Delores wed and soon built a home adjacent to his father’s, Charlie Sr., who was then the fire chief of St. Paul Park. He started working full time at 3M in what was dubbed the “tank farm.” Alongside longtime friend and volunteer firefighter Harold “China” Gerry, the two unloaded hazardous chemicals from semi-trucks.
The following year, the couple’s first child was born, a boy who would become the third generation to take the name Charles.
“When I was growing up,” Charlie III said in a recent interview, “we lived on Broadway, which was close to the old fire station. All we had to do was walk over the tracks. We were probably only 100 yards away.”
In 1960, Whitbred founded the community’s first youth football league. His son remembered being an active part of the program as a youngster and said it was his father who sparked his love of athletics.
“I grew up on those fields playing for my dad,” Charlie III said. “He helped with the hockey program, he wrote all the league rules for youth baseball in St. Paul Park and he played three sports at Park High School — basketball, football and baseball.”
In honor of their rich coaching history and dedication to athletics in south Washington County, both father and son have sporting fields named after them. In 2010, Charlie III was also recognized for his 34-year career coaching softball and said his father was a key influence in his decision to stay active with athletics.
The Whitbred family continued to grow as daughters Pamela and Laura were born. Each of the siblings have a four-year separation.
“He played a very active role in our lives as kids,” Charlie III said about his father. “He was really well loved by us and the community. And he really did anything he could to help anyone out.”
Following in the footsteps of his father, Whitbred, who became a volunteer with the St. Paul Park Fire Department in 1956, was quick to help in the event of an emergency.
“Whenever there was a fire, my dad would sprint down to the fire station, open the doors and get the engines ready,” Charlie III explained. “Sometimes I’d go down there with him to visit my Grandpa Whitbred. I had a great time down at the fire station as a kid.”
Fateful February day
It wasn’t unusual for Whitbred to work a full 10-hour shift at 3M and end up helping on a late night fire.
Such was the case in the early morning hours of Feb. 2, 1962. Charlie III, who was 12 at the time, remembers his father had worked at the plant all day and received a call shortly after 3 a.m. that a fire had broken out at a nearby grocery store.
“It was just a crappy, cold day, just like every day in February,” Charlie III remembered. “We were all sleeping when he got up and went to the fire.”
At the time of the fire, Pamela and Laura were 8 and 4, respectively. The family was also expecting a fourth child, a girl who would be named Charlene.
Newspaper accounts of the blaze reported bakers inside Applebaum’s, which is currently G-Will Liquors, discovered the fire. By the time area fire departments arrived on scene, the fire had spread to the adjacent Ben Franklin and Homemaker’s Guild stores. Reports stated canned foods, paint and ammunition began exploding and strong winds flailed the water hoses uncontrollably.
Whitbred, who was said to have showed up soaking wet, helped battle the blaze before borrowing keys to go home and change. By the time he returned, the effects of the fire turned lethal. One report said Whitbred had expressed not feeling well.
Moments later, he collapsed and was pronounced dead from a heart attack at a nearby hospital. He was just 34.
“I can remember my mother coming into my room and saying, ‘Daddy’s gone,’” Charlie III said. “I mean, as a kid, how do you comprehend that?”
Two months earlier, the family dealt with the death of Charlie Sr., from cancer and losing his father shortly thereafter, Charlie III said it was a lot for a young child to experience.
“You always want to tell your parents you love them, but when you’re 12 you don’t think about stuff like this,” he said of his father’s death.
Charlie III said his father fought a fire several months prior to his last call and suffered from smoke inhalation, adding that the heart attack may have been linked to that fire.
To this day, Charlie III said he’s not sure which was worse — the news of his father’s death or the funeral.
“It was miserable,” he said. “People were lined up for blocks. You couldn’t hardly get into the church. I can remember seeing people all the way down Summit Avenue and up the hill toward Newport. There must have been everyone in St. Paul Park at that funeral.”
Having lived in the community his entire life, Whitbred knew everyone and everyone knew him, his son said.
Born a month later, Charlene Whitbred Hemmingson never met her father. She said last month at the fallen firefighter memorial in St. Paul that despite never having met him, she knew he was a profoundly adored man.
“(The memorial) definitely gives me some closure on this chapter of his life,” she said with tears welling. “It will always be an emotional thing for me.”
The grandson of Whitbred, Jake Corrigan, a Park High School grad, followed in the athletic shoes of his grandfather and played high school football. He said the memorial in St. Paul is a reminder of the sacrifice his grandfather made to save others.
“It’s nice to have something to be able to see and have something formal to visit,” Corrigan said.
The family was honored last year at the inaugural ceremony of the new memorial and was given a flag and flower. Charlie Whitbred Jr.’s name is etched on one of the poles and faces southeast toward St. Paul Park. Remembering the park dedication to his father following his death, Charlie III said it’s one of many things that will solidify that the Whitbred legacy will live on in St. Paul Park.
“He was the volunteer in town that everyone knew,” Charlie III added. “He never said why he volunteered on the fire department but I know he enjoyed it. You never think a tragedy like this would happen so it’s important to tell people you appreciate them and love them.”