By Starrla Cray
LORETTO, MN “It’s kind of like taking a piece out of you,” Herb Koch said, reflecting on his recent retirement from the Loretto Fire Department.
Koch admitted that he feels a little lost without his pager, and sometimes catches himself feeling for it at his side.
“After 32 years, it just gets to be a part of you,” he said. “It’s going to take some getting used to.”
As a child, Koch loved going to the fire station with his father, Fritz, who was also a member of the Loretto Fire Department.
When he was old enough to join, Koch put his name on the waiting list.
“After about six months, Tom Grinnell retired, and a spot opened up for me,” Koch said.
For the next few months, Koch spent countless hours with the department, helping to build a new fire station. A few of the older members noticed his dedication, and nominated him for the position of assistant fire chief.
At 19, Koch was one of the youngest people to do the job, but he took it seriously.
For the next 16 years, he diligently helped to fundraise money for equipment, develop training programs for new members, and assist with a variety of emergency calls.
“We worked at making it a first-class organization, and I was really proud of that,” Koch said. “I also liked the challenge of it. Every call was different. When you’re driving up, you don’t know what you’re going to face.”
Koch later became fire chief, taking on an even greater responsibility. He helped Loretto branch out into other communities, and was president of the Lake Region Mutual Fire Aid Association for a time.
In 1998, Koch’s wife, Shelly, became the department’s first female firefighter.
“She was an excellent firefighter,” Koch said, adding that for the 12 years that Shelly was on the department, they ran almost every call together.
They were both in town during the day, giving them the ability to respond to a high percentage of calls.
Having a great group of dedicated people made going to each call much easier, according to Koch.
“You need the whole team,” he said. “One or two people can’t do it alone.”
Throughout the years, Koch said he made friends with police departments, ambulance services, and other agencies, as well.
“They were always willing to help us when we needed it,” Koch said.
One of Koch’s favorite parts of being a firefighter was seeing the organization move forward, with better gear, equipment, and training.
“Having good things to work with makes the job a little easier and safer,” he said.
Making purchasing decisions was often a challenge, though, Koch said, recalling the time the department purchased a $247,000 Pierce engine in 1996.
“We had to take out a loan and co-sign at the bank,” Koch said.
Then, four years later, the department had to replace a truck that was totaled during training, at a cost of $353,000.
Assisting with emergencies can also be a challenge, Koch said. In 2004, there was a house fire in Corcoran in which one of the firefighters fell through a floor. Koch and other members of the department helped save the man’s life, but it was a close call.
“That was probably one of the lowest days,” Koch said, explaining that it’s scary to think what could have happened.
Despite the dangers, however, Koch said he feels honored to have served his community.
“We were always thinking, ‘how can we make the situation better than when we got there?’” he said.
Koch said he greatly appreciates his family’s support throughout the years, because being a firefighter required a significant time commitment.
Koch and his wife have five children, including Herb Jr., Nick (and his wife Melissa), Kent, Kirby, and Kalley.
In mid-February, Koch decided it was time to retire from the fire department to focus more on the family’s convenience store, Koch’s Korner, which they purchased about a year ago. Shelly retired from the department in October.
“It was just time for us to step off,” Koch said. “We want to be able to do things 100 percent.”
Even though he’s no longer part of the team, Koch said he’ll never forget his time on the Loretto Fire Department.
“It was a big part of my life,” he said. “It was a very rewarding experience for me, and I was truly honored to be able to do it.”