By Ryan Gueningsman
DELANO, MN For the first time in 24 years, Gary Zitzloff of Delano is able to sleep at night without worrying about the sound of his pager going off.
And although he retired from the department in late October, he has literally grown up with the fire department.
“I grew up with it with my dad,” Zitzloff said of his father, Art.
Zitzloff said during his childhood, there weren’t pagers but rather “fire phones” that would ring steady until answered.
Art served more than 30 years on the department. Gary and his brother, David, both followed in their father’s footsteps.
Zitzloff has lived in Delano his entire life, and has worked as a machinist for the last 32 years at Graco in northeast Minneapolis.
It took four tries, but he stuck with it, and in October 1986, Zitzloff was appointed to the Delano Fire Department.
“They were more selective,” Zitzloff said. “They wanted people who lived in town. I had tried since we got married in 1980. I replaced Joe Hayes, who retired. They were doing medicals and really wanted to get into the medical part. I always said if I didn’t make it at Graco, I’d go to school for paramedic.”
Zitzloff, who lives a block away from the fire department, was confident he’d be able to make a majority of the fire calls, despite working away from town. His parents lived right next to him and his wife, so they took the kids to help out.
“We had three kids and didn’t travel much then,” Zitzloff added. “I was pretty gung-ho. I wasn’t home a whole lot.”
He recalls riding to Waconia with Dan Anger for first responder training twice a week, and said the rest of his training with the department was “on-the-job.”
Zitzloff also recalled the equipment when he first started with the department, including the gear the firefighters used, and the trucks.
“The rescue truck was donated by the Lions and was an old bread van. One of the tankers was (former assistant fire chief Jim) Janikula’s old milk truck, and we bought one of our grass rigs from Emery Tree Service,” Zitzloff said. “The trucks have changed a lot.”
Despite the changes made to equipment over the years, one thing that has remained consistent are the calls.
However, Zitzloff said the volume of calls now is higher than when he first joined the department, and a majority of them are medical-related.
“You get some bad calls you don’t talk a lot about,” Zitzloff said, adding that firefighters look at it as “doing a job” when they are on the scene.
“Thank God for my wife she’s the rock there,” Zitzloff said. “A lot of these people I know. I grew up with some of them and their kids. It stays in your mind. Time heals it and you try to learn a little bit from it. It’s an emotional thing people are going to die.”
One thing his brother, David, told him has stuck with him for all these years.
“David said it’s an accident there is nothing you can do on it. You can try to prevent it, but you have to deal with it. We’re there to help take care of it or at least make it a little better, or at least provide a little closure on the scene,” Zitzloff said.
He said medical calls involving children are probably the toughest.
“It’s one of those things you’ll never forget if you’re in them,” he said.
While he has seen his share of bad calls over the years, he said there have also been some funny ones including when members of the department turned into regular detectives one cold night.
“We stopped a burglary at Theis’ gas station,” he recalled with a laugh of an incident from the late 1980s. The department got called to a fire and while it was en route, David observed someone kicking in the back door of the gas station. The fire call didn’t amount to anything, so a few members of the department went back there as they were on their way back to the station to check it out.
“We were driving in the pumper yet and we could see him in there,” Zitzloff said. “He didn’t know we were outside and the police weren’t there yet.”
Several other firefighters had returned to the station and headed back to the gas station and “staked out” the building. Zitzloff said it got interesting when one firefighter hit one of the intruders with a pipe, and three firefighters chased another guy across the parking lot of the Delano American Legion.
“There were a whole bunch of guys there,” Zitzloff said with a laugh. “It was pretty funny.”
He also talked about grass fires sparked by trains along the railroad tracks, and said there was one that stretched from Maple Plain to Howard Lake. He recalled the old International truck, that allowed a firefighter to drive the truck and another to pump water at the same time.
“You had someone stand on the back and you’d shoot as you go,” Zitzloff said.
Of course, in Delano, the Crow River is also a factor, and he has seen his share of high water over the years.
Back in 2002, the community had to move its Fourth of July Celebration activities south due to high water, and he also recalled helping sandbag.
Tornados and other weather events also come to mind when he recalls his firefighting career.
There have been a few large fire calls over the years he has responded to, including the egg plant fire, which was located across from Industrial Louvers in the industrial park area.
“That was Mother’s Day,” Zitzloff recalled. “We were at my sister’s in Willmar and I could see the smoke from Litchfield.”
Barn fires, he said, are also hit-and-miss with the department.
“You might have nothing; then you get three in two weeks,” he said.
However, not all of Zitzloff’s work with the department was at the scenes of fires, traffic accidents, or gas station break-ins. He also took an active role with the department in promoting fire prevention and taught CPR for 17 years. He and David were named Delano’s citizens of the year in 2006. Art had received the same honor in 1996.
Outside the department, Zitzloff also stays plenty involved in other community aspects, including with the Fourth of July Celebration Committee, the athletic club, the city’s planning commission, and the park board. Zitzloff is also a trustee at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Delano and does maintenance on a part-time basis there.
This has also led him to do fire prevention at the Cherub Corner and said it’s about trying to keep the department in a positive light so children respond positively to it in a perhaps negative situation. He said it’s good for people to establish a personal connection with the firefighters in a positive setting.
Zitzloff said people who may have a minor issue will sometimes choose to call a firefighter individually, ahead of calling 911 and having the entire department respond.
“That probably happens to every fireman,” Zitzloff speculates. “I don’t want to call 28 guys, so I’ll call Gary or I’ll call Bob (chief Bob Van Lith). I’ve never had a problem with that. That’s what a fireman is. What’s the difference? I’m on call 24/7 anyway.”
That being said, Zitzloff said “the only way to get away from it is to get away from it,” and said he and Jeanne enjoy spending time in Duluth. They hope to do that even more now in his retirement.
His decision to retire from the department was not one he took lightly. Jeanne said it was his decision to make, and she’d be supportive no matter what.
“Dad and David are gone,” Zitzloff said. “My ultimate goal in life was when I was 50, to start slowing down. I had four uncles that never made it to 50. My next half of my life is with my wife and family,” he said.
He is slowly stepping away from responsibilities on the Fourth of July Committee and said his family is excited about the upcoming birth of he and Jeanne’s first granddaughter.
“It’s all falling into place,” Zitzloff said with a smile.
Another little girl from Delano will also always have a special place in Gary’s heart. He was part of the team that delivered her in Delano in 2009.
“I’ve done it all . . . I’ve brought someone in, and I’ve seen some leave the world. The icing on the cake was delivering one I was just there holding mom’s hand and reassuring her. I didn’t catch the baby, but I was still part of it it was just great . . . little Ellie I will never forget her,” he said.
Zitzloff was named captain of the department about 10 years ago and he retired as captain. When his father retired from the department, he was also a captain.
“Gary is a very good fireman,” said Zitzloff’s former chief, Winnie Sinkel, who retired from the department in 1990. “Gary took after his dad. Gary’s dad was a very good fireman, too, and was very dedicated.”
Gary and Jeanne have three children John and his wife, Toni, who are expecting their first baby in January; and twins Julie, who is married to Rich Munson and lives in Montrose, and Jason, who lives in Buffalo.
He expects to work at his job for about 10 more years, and he also recently was appointed to Delano’s Citizens Emergency Response Team (CERT).
“To me, you’re never done volunteering,” Zitzloff said. “You’re here to help out everybody and that’s why I was on the fire department I’m not going to stop.”
And even though he’s officially retired from the department, he is likely to still be involved with the department in other numerous ways.
“It’s a good group of guys,” he said. “It’s like a family. You’re still going to have your arguments, like you have with your brothers, but you help each other. We’re going to be there for each other.”