Several years ago I reflected on “A Firefighter’s Two Families” where one family is “traditional” with a spouse and oftentimes children, but the second family is quite different. The second family consists of the Brotherhood of firefighters and their families who come to the aid of each other during times of personal need. Unfortunately in so few years later, I experienced the need for and response from both.
July 7, 2014
It was a strikingly beautiful day in Eskisehir, Turkey. I was there on business for the second time in 30 days, and had spent that Monday with my colleagues engaging in wide-ranging client conversations about issues, plans and challenges within Turkish higher education. I had been traveling significantly more in the year and to more distant destinations than usual (Wales, Germany, United Arab Emirates, Turkey). Mom and Dad were nervous about me traveling so far from home and I thought something a little extra might help. I chronicled this particular trip a bit more on Facebook and messaged my parents with texts and photos at various stopping points along the way. Dad checked out a rare selfie of me while I was in the airport at Munich. Little did any of us know, it would be the last time he’d ever see me.
My mobile phone had been troublesome while onsite, but it started working when our team returned to the hotel to wind down, reflect, and recap. My phone buzzed to life with this text message via Google Voice:
7/7/14. You’ve got a new voicemail … Transcript: Hi Mr. Kainz, This is Sid … at the front desk in … DC. I just received a call from of Jim Luther. He says it’s an emergency that you give him a call on his cell number. It’s about your Mom…
I read the message and an icy chill hit me on that summer day. I quickly became numb and my mind raced to assess what I had read while I instinctively dialed home on my now fully functional mobile phone.
Jim Luther means Chief Jim Reuther of the Jamestown Fire Department. Emergency about Mom. Wait… If something happened to Mom, Dad would have called… If the Chief is calling… something bad happened to Dad.
Six weeks earlier in response to a weird rumor about my Dad’s untimely death, Mom, Dad and I decided that in the event of an emergency, we would reach out to the fire chief as he would need to know about anything that might affect Dad and his ability to serve on the fire department. Now, less than two months later, the plan had gone into effect.
“Your Daddy is gone, Chad,” said Mom as her voice cracked while she choked back tears. Chief Reuther shared that my father, Deputy Fire Chief Jerry Kainz, had died in the middle of the night. Just two days earlier, Jerry proudly took part in the fire department’s annual community pancake breakfast with his fellow firefighters, spent a leisurely day at home on Sunday, and the then with no warning, no health issues, nothing — Dad simply went to sleep and passed away at about 3:15am on Monday.
Although much of what followed remains obscured behind a mental fog, I do recall that I specifically asked the Chief to take command of the situation and that I trusted the fire department to do what would be needed to support my Mom until I got home. My colleagues in Turkey – Karen, Emrah and Mustafa – took charge of me in Eskisehir and in less than 12 hours I was on a flight out of Istanbul on my way to Fargo. The fire department, our second family, stepped in to take care of Mom and ultimately, us.
Loss for Two Families
Thirty-six hours later, Mom and the Chief met my flight at the airport in Fargo. Jill, a longtime friend, fellow “fire brat” and daughter of the Battalion Chief, left work early to meet us at the airport, too. She sensed what I was feeling — the connection and loss across the immediate and mutual fire families. We were all in shock, but the Chief kept his cool and drove us the 100 miles back to Jamestown.
The loss of Dad has been immensely painful for Mom and I. What makes Dad’s passing different is that our loss was also a loss to his fellow firefighters. Jerry was a volunteer within the Jamestown Fire Department for over 46 years, and with few exceptions, had always been a part of the department to the men and women of the fire service. Dad’s life was intertwined with the lives of the firefighters who were and are as much of a family as the three of us were. To put it into perspective, Dad spent more time with Chief Reuther than I spent growing up with Dad in Jamestown.
As with any death, one needs to communicate with relatives and friends, make funeral arrangements, and take care of a number of family and professional matters in an abbreviated and disrupted window of time. Mom and I included our second family in the planning and decision-making. We handled the immediate family issues and Chief Reuther stepped in to address those things that involved the community. To Mom and I, there was no question of including the fire department in everything as to us it is our family, too. The Chief, representing the firefighters, transformed into a close relative and he brought the strength of the men and women of the Jamestown Fire Department to our aid. He did so without question and with genuine leadership, professionalism, poise and personal grace.
The Friday before the funeral I realized that all of the funeral planning been centered on the immediate family, relatives and community, but not the firefighters. We needed to do something for them. Jerry had spent his life with these men and women and I felt they needed their time with him as much as we did. With the agreement of Mom and the Chief, I asked that the fire department take Dad one last time back to the fire hall after the funeral mass. The time would not be with Mom nor I for we would not attend; it would be a time for the firefighters.
On the day of the funeral, on what would have been Jerry’s birthday, the Basilica of St. James was filled with family, friends, former customers, past coworkers, and a sea of blue and white — firefighters, emergency personnel, police officers, sheriff’s deputies, and their families. Outside on the street were two lines of fire, police and emergency equipment, along with Dad’s favorite fire truck, the 1938 American LaFrance.
Before the funeral, I stepped out of the Basilica with Kathy and upon seeing the equipment lined up curbside, my emotions took over and I started sobbing. What no one knew until that moment was that as a child I had imagined that very scene for my Dad — an image that reflected both fear and respect; fear that Dad would lose his life on a fire scene and respect for his service to the community. The image that was crafted my imagination during my childhood had come true.
The Monsignor presided over the mass, and later I shared my eulogy with those gathered in Dad’s memory. I fought back the tears because every time I looked up, I saw the two families gathered together as one. To this day, that image is imprinted in my mind. In his full dress uniform in the company of the department and two past fire chiefs, Chief Reuther shared his thoughts from his perspective of Jerry as a firefighter. Days earlier while going through Dad’s things, we discovered a yellowed and worn piece of paper in his wallet. Unbeknownst to anyone, Dad carried a specific prayer in his wallet so to close the mass, we all prayed what he carried with him for decades — the “Fireman’s Prayer.”
When we exited the Basilica after the service, the stairs were lined on either side by firefighters and their families. Jerry’s cremated remains were placed on the ’38 LaFrance. The Chief, on behalf of the fire department, presented me with Dad’s helmet. I wrapped my arms around it, looked at the line of equipment on the street, turned and studied everyone assembled on the steps. It was humbling to see in the eyes of the people how much Dad meant to them as a friend, teacher, leader, and firefighter.
Shortly thereafter as we walked away to meet with those who came to pay their respects, the drivers returned to their trucks and the crews to their emergency vehicles. The line of equipment rolled from the Basilica and back to the fire hall — but there was something more. The volunteer firefighters got into their personal vehicles and followed the equipment back to the hall as well. At that moment after all these years I finally knew –
This is family. This is what it means to be in the family of a firefighter.
I would like to express my personal gratitude to John Steiner, photographer at the Jamestown Sun, for granting the permission to use the photograph of my Dad’s last call. I would also like to express my sincerest thank you to the men and women of the Jamestown Fire Department, Jamestown Rural Fire Department, Jamestown Ambulance Service, Jamestown Police Department, Stutsman County Sheriff’s Department, Stutsman County Law Enforcement Center, the North Dakota Firefighters Association, and all of firefighters, emergency service personnel, and law enforcement members across the State of North Dakota for their thoughts, prayers, and support. We never knew how much Jerry meant to you, too.