Experienced St. Anthony firefighter trio rides off

Photos by Daniel Vasta/The Herald
Retired firefighters Tom Boehm, left, Bill "Woody" Fischer and Keith Welp pose together for a portrait at the St. Anthony Volunteer Fire Department on Friday. 

 

 

By BILL POWELL
bpowell@dcherald.com

ST. ANTHONY — The St. Anthony Volunteer Fire Department closed out 2018 having bade adieu to three firefighters who, between them, accounted for 104 years of fire service.

Calling it a day were First Assistant Chief Bill “Woody” Fischer, Second Assistant Chief Tom Boehm and firefighter and first responder Keith Welp. All three veterans admit to still checking their nightstands and belt loops looking for suddenly absent pagers. Boehm and Woody just turned their gear in Dec. 31, while Welp retired at the start of last year.

“All three of these guys were in the middle of a lot of growth and changes,” says Fire Chief Scott Uebelhor. “They were mentors to all of our guys for years.”

St. Anthony’s fire department — formed to cover the fire protection needs of St. Anthony, St. Marks, Bretzville and all of Jackson Township — is always said to have started when Lawrence Hasenour, the man behind Hasenour Motor Co., came into his dealership’s break room, pointed at a number of unsuspecting employees and informed them they were on the fire department in 1963.

“That’s the story,” says Uebelhor, the sixth chief in the succession. “Lawrence saw the need.”

Woody, 64, who worked at the Hasenour dealership in St. Anthony for 47 years until it shuttered its doors in 2015 (he became a co-owner in later years and now works at Bob Luegers Motors), wins the Longevity Award among the three departing souls, having joined up in 1978. During his 40 years, he served under every fire chief except the very first one.

“If you worked in St. Anthony during the day,” Woody says, “you were a prime candidate to be a volunteer fireman.”

Firefighter gear at the St. Anthony Volunteer Fire Department on Friday.

Boehm, 67, joined the department in 1984, going in at the same time as Uebelhor. That was also the year the department began requiring firefighters to also become first responders.

“We were units 15 and 17,” the chief says. “So, in 1984, we had 17 firefighters. Now we have 29 (down from 31 when Woody, Boehm and Welp were on the active roster).” That total includes two female firefighters.

Boehm’s work history includes 20 years at Kimball International, 16 years at Hasenour Motor Co., and five years selling fire equipment. He retired in 2016.

Welp, 57, who works at Dubois Equipment Co. in Jasper, came aboard in 1988. Uebelhor says Welp was a “terrific firefighter and first responder” who always made meetings and training sessions. He currently serves on the department’s board of directors.

Serving so long required considerate employers on one hand, the men say, plus the personal fortitude to head into work after the occasional all-night fire callout. It helps that firefighters watch out for each other, especially when volunteers end up knowing 95 percent of the citizens they are dispatched to help, Boehm says.

Welp says Uebelhor, as chief, always stressed talking through any issues bothering members of the department after especially difficult runs.

“Don’t hold it in,” Welp says. “Get it out in the open.”

In the early years, the fire department was housed in the town’s community center. In 1971, a low-slung, brick fire station was built on County Road 450S. A 4,500-square-foot, four-bay annex for big trucks was built just east of the original station in 2015.

The department’s six chiefs would be Oscar Hoffman, Clarence Berg, Ray Hoffman, Ernie Wehr, Kenny Haas and Uebelhor.

Before the advent of pagers, the St. Anthony fire crew relied on a phone tree. Before rushing off to a fire, each member was in charge of calling the next person on the phone list.

After Woody’s first year on the department, firefighters pooled together more than $9,458 raised in donations to buy pagers. The department was dispatched through Hasenour Motor Co. in the beginning, since the dealership had someone present 24 hours a day.

“We had a night watchman,” Woody says.

The fire department raised funds through fish fries, dinners and shooting matches until 1991, when firefighters tried their hand at an inaugural street fest.

Uebelhor says it was Woody who first suggested a daylong festival to replace dink-and-dunk fundraising efforts. Everyone remembers the department’s veterans openly laughing at the suggestion.

Retired firefighters Keith Welp, left, Bill "Woody" Fischer and Tom Boehm sit together during an interview at the St. Anthony Volunteer Fire Department on Friday.

“It took a few years to get enough support from a few more firemen to go with me on it,” Woody says. “It’s like a big reunion for people who have moved away from here. We get a lot of community help to put it on.”

The community’s signature event — now in its 29th year — does so well that, thanks to festgoers’ generosity and the support of Jackson Township Trustee Sylvestor Voegerl, the fire department no longer solicits the general public for money. That’s saying a lot because it costs about $9,000 to outfit a new firefighter this day and age. St. Anthony businesses do get asked to help out from time to time and they have always responded, Uebelhor adds.

Boehm, who was the department’s secretary treasurer for 10 years, remembers how precious little money there was prior to the street fest. Lawrence Hasenour had set up a savings account for the department and Boehm had to draw from it each month to pay the bills. He still remembers getting chewed out for buying a $4.25 crank pencil sharpener without approval. That wall-mounted device remains a fire station fixture.

Woody and Welp focus on the beer garden portion of the street fest, stockpiling ice and serving frosty beverages. Boehm gets credit for starting the street fest’s Show & Shine Car, Truck & Motorcycle Show 23 years ago.

Just because the trio has retired from active fire service does not mean they are absolved of street fest duties.

“It didn’t go that well for them,” Uebelhor smiles. “And we’re lucky to have them still help us.”

Welp and his wife, Sharon (Dall), are the parents of grown sons Derek and Colin and daughter Chloe, a senior at Forest Park Junior-Senior High School.

Woody and his wife, Marilyn (Guthery), are the parents of grown children Autumn, Brady, Brandi, Carla and Eric.

Boehm and his wife, Donna (Hochgesang), are the parents of grown son Matt.

Uebelhor says all of the just-retired firefighters’ families “were as active as active could be,” too. It takes an incredible amount of buy-in by family units to have volunteer firefighters, the chief added.

Welp wants credit given to the St. Anthony community and department members who served before, during and, now, after his time in turnout gear. Together, he said, they are responsible for the department’s huge success.




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