By Ryan Gueningsman
When they were handing out slices of humble pie, Delano’s Fire Chief Bob Van Lith went back for a couple extra helpings.
The unassuming firefighter, who has spent 32 years on the local department, was recently named the 2010 United Firefighter of the Year.
United Fire is one of 15 regions in the state of Minnesota. It consists of 31 fire departments from Carver, Hennepin, Scott, and Wright counties. Van Lith has been chief of the Delano Fire Department since 1991.
“Bob is never comfortable being the center of attention, so watching him receive this award was a great way to let him know how much his service and dedication to the community are appreciated,” said his wife, Linda Van Lith.
Bob Van Lith comes from a family of firefighters, and has been involved with the fire service at the local, county, and regional levels.
At the local level, Van Lith was instrumental in starting CERT (Citizens Emergency Response Team), and has been involved in the Life Saver Program for Handicapped Adults and Children.
He led a committee in the construction of a new fire station, and the acquisition of new fire apparatus for his department.
“As chief of a department responsible for protecting a fire district located on the banks of the Crow River, Van Lith has worked tirelessly throughout the years with flood engineers during the flood season,” it was stated in his nomination letter from the other members of his department.
At the county level, Van Lith was involved in obtaining a grant for Wright County’s 800 MHZ radio system, and getting that system set up.
He also helped set up the Wright County Fire Investigation Team, was instrumental in the acquisition of funds and set up of the Wright County hazmat and mass casualty trailers, and serves as the treasurer for the Wright County Chief’s Association.
At the regional level, Van Lith has served as a board member for the Lake Region Mutual Aid Association. He is also the current treasurer for the United Firefighters Association, a position he has served for many years.
Van Lith presently serves alongside his son, Matthew, and has followed in the tradition of his father, former Delano Fire Chief Cornelius “Casey” Van Lith, and his brother, Steve, who is the fire chief in New Germany.
“He has volunteered countless hours on the day-to-day activities of the fire department, and has gone out of his way in doing whatever it takes to make our department the best it can be, both for its members and for the citizens of our fire district,” the nomination stated. “But, he doesn’t restrict his activities to our department alone. He is always ready and willing to help any area fire departments that need assistance, no matter how great or how small that need may be.”
The nomination also highlighted the continued love and support of Linda and his family, who have had to endure late nights, half-eaten meals, interrupted family time, etc., so that Van Lith could pursue his calling with passion.
“Bob truly enjoys what he does, and his greatest reward is the satisfaction he gets from helping others,” Linda said. “He couldn’t do all that he does without the support of his fellow firefighters, who are much like a second family. And I can’t express how much he means to his family. We are recipients of his kindness and generosity on a daily basis. We are all very proud of him for all he does and all he stands for.”
Mike Marketon, chief of the Montrose Fire Department since 1995, said he’s gone to Van Lith for advice on a number of things over the years. Marketon isn’t far behind Van Lith, having been on the department for 27 years.
“You can ask him anything about fire control and he’ll give you his advice, whether you like it or not,” Marketon said. “He’s a world of knowledge, having been around so long. We’ve talked a lot about issues, problems, and concerns.”
Hubie Widmer, who was the Watertown Fire Chief for 11 years and is the present secretary of United Fire, said Van Lith is a “go-getter,” and added, “when he’s running the scene, he’s always been pretty calm and collective. Everybody looks up to him.”
Marketon agreed Van Lith is one of those guys who one can give a job to and not have to worry about it not getting done. He recalled a double-fatality traffic accident on Highway 12 in which the Delano Fire Department provided mutual aid to Montrose
“I told him, ‘you take care of the fire, I’ll take care of the patients,’ and it got done,” Marketon said, adding that Van Lith remains calm and level-headed.
“He’s there to do a job and not to get the recognition for it,” Widmer said, adding though, that it is important to recognize individuals who put a lot of time and effort into fire service.
“He’s a good guy. He deserves this award,” Marketon said. “He’s helped a lot of people in the county.”