West Allis honors century-old firefighter
Firefighters surprise 'one of their own' with party
West Allis — With fellow firefighters, Bill Koehn crawled on his stomach through a burning West Allis home toward a man sitting disoriented in a chair.
There was no smoke, but the burning heat was intense, forcing the firefighters to the floor. The man in the chair had been enveloped by that searing heat and had become so confused that he would have died right there.
"We told him to get down and showed him where the door was," Koehn remembered. "A couple days later, he came to the Fire Department and thanked the fellows for saving his life."
With a modest laugh, Koehn said: "That's what we do."
Koehn has the distinction of being the city's oldest living retiree, West Allis Fire Chief Steve Bane said.
He has been retired from the Fire Department for 45 years now. But firefighters who protect the city today came to the Library Square Retirement Community, 1820 S. 75th St., on Jan. 10 to help him celebrate his 100th birthday.
"One of the things the fire services does is remember our past and honor our own," said Bane.
"How many people get to be 100?" Bane said. "And how many people are so proud to be a West Allis firefighter?"
The 100th birthday celebration of cake and 100 cards from the Fire Department was a surprise party.
"Wow, that was really a surprise," the veteran firefighter said. "I was in the chapel and it was pretty quiet and I came out and saw all those people there and they started clapping."
"It was wonderful of the firemen to come over," he said.
Finding a long career
Bane was 8 years old when Koehn retired but has spoken with firefighters who knew him on the job.
"They said what a good guy he was," Bane said.
Koehn said that working with them was the best part of his job for nearly 27 years.
"I had good fellows to work with, that's the big thing," said Koehn.
He became a firefighter more or less by accident.
"I was looking for a steady job," he said.
He was making only $20 a week and fortunately his new wife was working too, he said. He knew that there would always be fires, so he tried out for the Fire Department and was accepted on Feb. 13, 1942.
He was promoted to equipment operator in January 1956, which means he drove the fire engines, operated the ladder and made sure the water pumping was fast and effective, Bane said.
When Koehn retired in February 1969, then Fire Chief John Morch wrote in part at the formal retirement notification: "His easy-going attitude served many times as a steadying influence on the younger members."
Bane said, "That's big in our world."
When things start getting out of hand, "it's easy to lose your head," he said.
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