Jim Baehnman was 22 years old and a newlywed when he was asked to join the Weyauwega Fire Department.
“I was asked by one of the existing members at the time if I would consider becoming a firefighter. I thought about it. I thought it was exciting,” he said.
Baehnman admits he did not know much about fighting fires at first, but he was ready to learn.
“It was rather informal at that time,” he said about joining the department. “Individual members would look for prospective members. I was working at my parents’ grocery store at that time. It was close to the station.”
In that perspective, things were no different in those days than they are today.
“You try to find people who are available day or night,” he said.
Now, after 42 years with the department – including the last nine years as the chief and 15 years prior to that as assistant chief – Baehnman is retiring.
“The Weyauwega Fire Department has a mandatory retirement age. For my position, it is 66, so I could have served for two more years but decided the time was right to retire,” he said.
He and his wife Betty talked about it, and in September, Baehnman announced to the members of the department that he would retire at the end of this year.
“I never really had the desire to be the chief,” he said. “I did a lot of other things to help my other chiefs. There’s a lot to be done on a daily or weekly basis. We all have full-time jobs, so we shared the duties.”
He remembers the small building downtown where the fire station was located when he joined the department.
The fire department’s four vehicles were parked tail to noise, the equipment was vastly different then it is today and there was much sharing of gear.
Baehnman was assigned to share gear with another firefighter who was not likely to be available during the day.
“Within the first week, we got a call,” Baehnman recalls. “I didn’t know anything about firefighting, but I was eager to participate.”
He was putting the gear on, when someone tapped him on the shoulder, telling him that he was putting on his gear and that he should take it off.
The firefighter that he shared gear with was available that day, and Baehnman ended up being a spectator on his first fire call.
Since then, he has seen many changes at the department.
In 1982, a new fire station was built, and 10 years later, the city of Weyauwega and towns of Lind, Royalton and Weyauwega formally established a fire district.
Today, the department has 36 active firefighters, seven vehicles and gear that Baehnman says is far superior to the coat and pants he wore when he joined the department.
Instead of each firefighter having a “fire phone” in the home to activate the siren, people call 911 when there is a fire.
There is also much more training today.
Baehnman said the one thing that has not changed is the dedication that members of the fire department have.
“It takes a person committed to spending time to learn what needs to be done to be good at what you have to do. I don’t think in the beginning, they understand the commitment needed,” he said.
One of the requirement of being on the department is learning all of the jobs, “because you don’t know what position you will be in at any given time,” he said.
There are many calls that Baehnman remembers from his tenure on the department.
A photo on the wall behind his desk at Transportation Insurance Services, where he works in Weyauwega, is a reminder of one of them.
The picture is of the March 4, 1996 train derailment in Weyauwega that resulted in the community being evacuated for several weeks.
“That morning, I woke up like everybody else to a page,” he said. “I was on the second vehicle that arrived. All the way there, I held my breath. I was overwhelmed by what I was looking at. It appeared at first like the whole north end of the city was on fire.”
Baehnman said it was difficult time for everyone on the department as they dealt with the possibility of an explosion at the site.
A number of things came out of the experience that were beneficial, including guidelines for such incidents in the future.
“There are good and bad moments on a department. I always tell the members who come on that you don’t how you will react to situations. Don’t let it eat at you,” Baehnman said.
In his retirement from the department, he will miss many things.
He likes to know what is going on and will miss the friendships, which he hopes will continue.
“Very few people want to retire from the department,” Baehnman said. “You develop a passion. You don’t want to let that go.”
The new chief will be Tom Cullen. Ironically, Baehnman talked Cullen into joining the department some years ago.
“The department will continue to expand and to train and to learn and to be even better,” Baehnman said, “because of the commitment of the people who are there, and it’s nice to know that – both as a retiring chief and as a citizen of the community.”