By Starrla Cray
LESTER PRAIRIE, MN From battling house fires in sub-zero temps to assisting car accident victims at 3 a.m., Don Hoof didn’t spend 40 years on the Lester Prairie Fire Department because it was easy or comfortable.
“It’s not about what I do for myself,” said Don, who celebrated his last official day as a volunteer firefighter Aug. 19.
For Don, serving meant an opportunity to help friends, neighbors, and family members in times of great need.
“People are so scared in an emergency, and they appreciate seeing a familiar face,” said Don’s wife, LaJean.
Of the 141 calls the Lester Prairie Fire Department responded to in 2012, Don made it to 109 the highest percentage of any current firefighter.
“I always felt responsible,” Don said.
No matter if he was at work (21 years at Schwartz Manufacturing, and 25 years and counting at Polyfoam), sleeping, or relaxing at a favorite fishing spot, Don didn’t make excuses to miss a call.
“When you become a firefighter, it’s a 24/7 job,” LaJean said.
Don, who grew up two miles east of Lester Prairie, was asked to join the fire department by his neighbor, Roland Thiel. At that time, Harold Klaustermeier was fire chief.
“It’s been a pleasure to have good chiefs,” Don said, adding that Jerry Pawelk later had the position, followed by current chief Jim Hoof, who is Don’s younger brother.
“We’re going to miss Donny during the day,” Jim said. “You could always depend on him.”
Jim has been a member of the fire department since Don asked him to join in 1978. Their older brother, Larry Hoof, was also a long-standing member, serving from 1973 to 1998.
“I will miss the guys I can’t say enough good about them,” Don said.
Of course, there are some aspects of the job Don won’t miss as much. At his first house fire call, for example, Don remembers the temperatures being well below zero.
“My hands were frozen, and I could barely grab onto the ladder,” he recalled. Cold weather is also difficult in that it can lead to a frozen hose or pumper.
The first 10 years of Don’s service were solely firefighting. Then, in May of 1983, the department began responding to medical calls, as well.
“You would not believe some of the bad accidents we went to,” Don said. “You don’t forget things like that.”
After major disasters, the fire department meets to talk about what went well, and what they could improve on for the future.
“We learn from our mistakes,” Don said.
Part of the reason Don stayed on the fire department so long was to train new members, and help them learn from his experience.
According to Don, training exercises are crucial for a successful fire department. In Lester Prairie, the third Monday of each month is dedicated to training, while the first Monday of the month is a business meeting.
Training and technology have improved firefighting in the past 40 years.
“When I started, we were on a phone system,” Don said, explaining that land lines would give a steady ring at firefighters’ homes, indicating a fire call.
In later years, firefighters each got pagers, which have since been upgraded a few times. Now, calls also go to firefighters’ cell phones.
In all his years on the fire department, Don seldom missed a meeting or training session, and was also active in fire prevention activities at Lester Prairie School. In July, he was given the Minneapolis Aquatennial Honorary Commodore award for his volunteer efforts.
“I was definitely surprised,” he said.
LaJean, on the other hand, knew about the honor weeks ahead of time.
“She made me change my shirt that night,” Don recalled. “I was wondering what was going on.”
LaJean encourages residents not to be afraid to call 911 if they’re in need of assistance.
“Sometimes, older people will wait to call until 2 a.m., when they’re extremely sick,” she said. “They’ll say they didn’t feel good all day, but didn’t want to bother the firemen. I tell them to call that’s what they’re there for. No call is a dumb call.”