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In their boots: St. Paul Park retired firefighters remember long careers

Retired St. Paul Park firefighters Harold "China" Gerry, left, and Don Winberg will help usher in the Heritage Days grand parade along with the entire department, which has been named this year's grand marshals. (Bulletin photo by Emily Buss)

It's not a glamorous career, nor does it reap large financial benefits, but it has been touted by those who have worked in the field as the greatest job in the world. And that statement rings true to retired St. Paul Park firefighters Don Winberg and Harold "China" Gerry.

With more than 60 years of rescue experience between them, the former fire chiefs have seen it all.

From grass fires and chimney blazes to controlled burns and tanker explosions, the number of times these men summoned the courage to face danger head on is memorable yet incalculable. And for both men, the opportunity to serve on the then-all-volunteer crew was merely "something to do" but ignited a passion for lifelong community service.

The two men shared stories of their time with the fire department recently as St. Paul Park puts the spotlight on its firefighters during this week's Heritage Days festival. The celebration, "Hot Times on Broadway," is celebrating the department's 75th anniversary.

Joining the department in 1948, Gerry, who had recently turned 18, was a familiar face around the St. Paul Park fire hall, which was located clear on the other end of town.

"I would hang around the department a lot," Gerry said. "I was young when I signed on. Somehow they let me join."

With no formal schooling or background in fire safety, becoming a firefighter in the '40s was more of a hands-on experience, he said. There were no breathing apparatus, no thousand-gallon fire engines, no instant alert of burning structures.

"You were always on call," Gerry said.

The firefighters back then relied on a town siren that would ring through the streets. Once the alarm was sounded, Gerry would rush to the fire hall, get suited up and look for black smoke. A story he laughs about today occurred when he slept through an alarm which happened to be stationed outside of his house.

"A siren was built right next to my home and I was napping one day," Gerry said. "It must have been a pretty hard nap because I didn't hear it at all."

Pranking was a particularly popular way to pass the down time. In 1953, Gerry and other firefighters had an idea to prank then-Fire Chief Russ Lundt.

"It was a pretty innocent prank," he laughed. "We decided to pull a fake fire on the chief. We hooked up a smoke bomb to his car. When he came out he was pretty upset. That was funny."

Having a job with such a high burnout rate, Gerry said it was important to have a sense of humor.

"If this job wasn't fun we wouldn't have done it," Winberg added.

However, not every day was as easy going.

Tragic call

In the mid 1950s, shortly before Winberg joined the department, a house fire occurred that both men said they still vividly remember.

Gerry was called to a basement fire and quickly learned two young girls were trapped inside.

"It was about 8 o'clock in the evening and it was winter time so the kerosene stoves were always running," Gerry remembered. "Two girls were home alone. The fire started in the basement and the girls ran upstairs."

As one of the first men through the doors, Gerry made his way through the thick black smoke and flames and found the 11-year-old and 2-year-old hiding in their bedroom. Unfortunately, it was too late.

"It was tough," he said. "But you do everything you can."

Technology changed work

Winberg joined the department in 1960. He was a 21-year-old looking for a part-time adventure. By then, the department had gone from all-volunteer to a whopping 75 cents an hour, including workers compensation benefits.

"You didn't do the job for the money," Winberg joked. "But it was never about the money anyway."

Shortly after joining, in 1965, Gerry was named fire chief, a title that he held for five years.

Several years later, the department added rudimentary CB radios, which didn't work well when taken far from the fire hall. The first radio was installed in the fire trucks in the late 1970s.

"We were running around with these old CB radios and most of them didn't work very well to begin with," Winberg said. "Now there are all these smart phones that can call France and there's this instant connection. Technology has done wonders for this profession."

The new technology came in handy when a tanker exploded in the late 1980s, when the department was radioed to assist the Newport Fire Department.

"No one knew that this tanker had been leaking for a while," Winberg explained. "It was hauling coal and just blew up."

With gasoline filling up a nearby dike and a shut off valve on the tanker truck spewing flames, Winberg, Gerry and their crew created a waterfall of water which guided a Newport firefighter into the blaze safely.

"We covered them in water as they walked in and once the valve was shut off the fire was basically out," Winberg said.

As technology advanced, so did the difficulty of fire fighting. Grass fires became scarce and electrical house fires were commonplace. As "the old guy" on the department in the early 1980s, Gerry said it was time to hang up his jacket, and he retired in 1983 at the young age of 50.

"I was done," he admitted. "There comes a time when you realize that this is a young man's job."

During that time, Winberg stepped up his skills and in 1987 became fire chief, a position he held for three consecutive years before retiring.

"At that time it was hard to be a fire chief," Winberg admitted. "With a crew of 30 at that time, there was always something going on in our department. I think the problems are still the same as they are today except the guys are more protected. When we were on patrol we had rubber boots, rubber coats and leather hats. It's much better now."

Despite leaving the department, Gerry said the firefighter gene was passed down to his two sons, Mark and Scott, who signed on as young men. Scott Gerry even became fire chief in 1997 and held the position until 2002.

"I wasn't afraid for them because they knew what they were doing," Gerry said of his sons. "I'm proud they followed in my footsteps."

Proud is another way Winberg described his time on the St. Paul Park Fire Department. As a supplemental income for his full-time job, fire fighting was never a dream of his. But, Winberg said it ended up being the best job he's ever had.

"I thought about doing this for a year or two, but it was never a full-time job for me," he said. "It takes a lot out of you and you're away from family sometimes, but it was absolutely the best job."

"It was a good department and still is one of the best in the state," Gerry added. "I still come down to the department on occasion. You lived and breathed this department for so long and it will always be part of who we are."