Spencer’s Foth finished after 50 years as a firefighter
It may have been for only a few weeks on either end, but Russell Foth can still say he was on the Spencer Fire Department for parts of seven decades. With 50 full years of service prior to his official retirement date on Jan. 14, he is the longest-serving volunteer the department has ever known.
With a recent double knee replacement and the knowledge that the department he joined on Dec. 12, 1969 now has an ample number of volunteers to take care of the necessary work, Foth decided late last year it was time to step down. For somone who learned how to fight barn blazes and grass fires and chimney smoke back in the days of “rubber coats and plastic helmets,” Foth said it was difficult to let go.
“There comes a time when all good things eventually have to come to an end,” he said. “I know we have capable, intelligent officers and firefighters and it seemed like, OK, with me not being able to get up into the trucks, it was just time. It was a very tough decision. Now I sit and listen to them on the scanner.”
A young Russell Foth, who grew up just outside of Spencer, had no plans to join the volunteer fire department in the late 1960s, that is, until the crew was dispatched to his brother Dennis’ farm one night.
“Back then they were short of firemen,” he said. “I was young. I was only 23 years old. My brother’s barn had burned and I had spent some time out there that night. They were a nice set of guys.”
Those guys asked Foth if he’d like to join the department, and he accepted. From them, he learned the ropes and how to control blazes without the modern tools and techniques firemen have available to them now. Training was in real time, at fire scenes.
“You got voted in and they said, ‘Here’s the hose. Put the wet stuff on the red stuff and the fire goes out,’” Foth said.
Foth said he had plenty of adequate on-scene training as he grew into the new role. There was more chance for practice then, as chimney and barn fires were more common occurrences than they are now.
“Everybody was very helpful,” he said. “When you came to a fire, they took you along with them and showed you handson, ‘This is how we do it in Spencer.’” Equipment and gear was of course more limited in the 1970s. As Foth began his career, the department was still using a 1948 era engine. The village had a few trucks and the rural department had a few, and those had to be enough to fight whatever started burning.
“Shortly after I got on we got our first rescue (unit),” Foth said. “It was an old van that we made into a rescue ourselves.”
Foth also recalls that the department had only one self-contained breathing unit then.
“Now they have one for every person that’s out at a fire,” he said.
Strategies were much different too, at first. Many barn fires were in full blast furnace mode by the time the trucks arrived, Foth said, and the emphasis was on saving what stood nearby.
“Back in the day, it was more surround and drown,” he said. “Most of them were going so hot by the time we got there. With rubber coats and rubber boots and a plastic cap, you couldn’t run into a fire without being melted ... Basically, you protected the other buildings. You let the fire burn itself out. It was more or less save the surrounding buildings.”
Foth worked for 42 years for Wick Building Systems before retiring in 2008. As he became more experienced with the fire department, he took on various management roles. He was a captain for a while, and was president of the fire association for more than a decade.
In that role, he worked with budgets, and with helping to convince village government leaders in 1994 that a new station was needed. The old concrete building was woefully small for the new equipment coming out, and Foth and his fellow firefi ghters were pleased to move into their new spacious station on Willow Drive.
Foth said the fire department was able to work with the powers-that-be to continually improve the department. From an old engine with a front-bumper mounted pump that could only throw 500 gallons per minute, to the 65-foot ladder truck the department bought in 1999 for $394,000, the money came when it was needed.
“The support of this community and the surrounding townships has been great,” Foth said. “They have a budget they have to follow. You can’t have everything you want. They always have had the best interest of the department in mind.”
Likewise, Foth said the men and women with whom he raced to fire scenes at any time of the day or night were dedicated people.
“I think the Spencer Fire Department has been blessed with enough personnel and good, friendly, cooperative people to work with,” he said. “When I came in, that’s the way they were and as I’m leaving, that’s the way I see it, too. The nice thing was I enjoyed for 50 years working with every person on this department. They all had their own ways, yet it was enjoyable working with the people on this department.”
With so many recollections from half a century, Foth has to dig back to think of the most memorable. There was one barn fire in particular west of the village, he recalls, when he and two other firemen went into a new section of the building as the old part collapsed. Smoke filled the structure, and they dropped to their hands and knees to get out.
“We were crawling out because your good air is down at the bottom,” he said. “We had to follow the barn gutter to get out. I will never forget crawling out and eating s--t.”
Also a member of the ambulance crew until 1984, Foth was part of a baby delivery one night. Eighteen years later, he ran into that mother, and the girl he helped bring into the world.
“She said, this is the man who was there to help give you birth,” Foth recalls.
Another call he remembers was to an accident near Riplinger. A man was trapped under a vehicle in a water-filled ditch, and would have drowned had Foth and others not been able to lift the car.
“A couple of saves like that makes you feel good that you’re on the department,” he said.
It still felt good for Foth, but, oh, those knees. Unfortunately, he said, a fire scene is not a place for somebody who can’t get around so swiftly anymore.
“These are situations where you can’t take your time,” he said.
And so, Foth called it quits, but figures he’ll probably mosey down to the station after a call, maybe to make coffee for the firefighters as they return. He made hundreds of runs with those men and women, to fires on frigid winter nights when they had to stand close to a blaze to stay warm, and on those rare but terrible occasions when a life was lost.
Back at the station, though, it was the brotherhood of firemen, and he was a proud member.
“Those were the good times,” he said. “When you got back and the fire was out and you could pick on each other. It’s been my pleasure to be with these people and this community.”
Russell Foth retired on Jan. 14 after more than 50 years on the Spencer Fire Department. He began on Dec. 12, 1969, and can say he was a fireman for parts of seven different decades.
DEAN LESAR/STAFF PHOTO