40 years in a flash for fire chief

Now an ‘old guy,’ Dennis Berry still learning

Cliff Buchan
News Editor

Dennis Berry remembers the early days in the 1970s. Young and eager to learn as a new fire department recruit, Berry and other Wyoming firefighters would look forward to training sessions and would soak up the ideas and concepts they would learn.

When they returned to fire department meetings and shared their newfound knowledge, their energy and enthusiasm was dampened by veteran firefighters who did not reject change out of hand, but would not rush forward. There was some skepticism but with an attitude of “show me” to justify some idea.

That was 40 years ago.

Dennis Berry in his Wyoming Fire Department office with a water bucket that was once used by firemen on the bucket brigade. (Photo by Cliff Buchan)

In 2012, Dennis Berry is starting his 41st year on the Wyoming Fire Department. He serves as chief and has been chief since 1982 with the exception of 1985 when he stepped away because of work commitments tied to his day job.

Although Berry, 64, does not see himself as “old,” he can relate to those days in the 1970s. Today it is his turn to be the one asking for proof that a training idea or a fire fighting tool would work and be worth the expense.

“The longer I was on the fire department, the change came,” he said in the quiet of the fire hall. “The change does come.”

A Natural Fit

A Wyoming resident since 1956, Berry has always looked at Wyoming as his home. That’s why he came back in the fall of 1971 after serving in the Air Force. “It was where home was,” Berry said.

Berry and his twin brother, Dale, are 1966 graduates of Forest Lake High School. Dennis followed his brother into the Air Force in 1967. It was a good career move for Dennis even with duty in Southeast Asia where he was a ground mechanic and crew chief on a C-130 transport. The unit would ferry supplies from Saigon and Cam Ranh Bay to Army and Marine forward bases.

During a leave, the Berry brothers hitched a ride to Da Nang where they met up with another hometown pal, Neil Gatzow, who was serving with the Marines. The reunion was a signal of the bond among friends.

Berry returned to the states, married his sweetheart, Sue Christsen of Shafer, and finished up his military stint with an assignment in California. After arriving home, he was hired by the village as a maintenance worker. “I was the only maintenance guy,” he said.

It was at the same time that Gatzow completed his Marine service and returned to Wyoming, becoming active in the community and joining the fire department. Berry credits Gatzow with his entry to the profession.

“He talked me into coming down to the fire station for a bottle of beer,” Berry said. Just two months removed from the Air Force, Berry found himself with a new calling — the fire service.

“I’ve been in trouble with my wife ever since,” Berry jokes. In December of 1971, the village council approved his membership in the fire department.

He’s never second guessed that decision.

“It’s just a passion — I don’t know what else to call it,” he says. “I got hooked somehow.”

Many Changes

While the 40 years have gone by in a flash, they did not evaporate without leaving behind change.

Consider the following.

As an assistant fire chief to chief Howard Carstens in 1975, Dennis Berry teamed with the chief to help push down a wall at the Rabel farm fire. (Forest Lake Times file photo)

When Berry joined in 1971, Wyoming’s population was 600. Today, thanks in part to the merger of Wyoming Township, it is 7000.

In the first years of his service, the department handled 15 to 20 calls a year. The department is now averaging 340 calls each year. In 1971, the department’s oldest truck was 30 years old and its newest truck was 23 years old. Today, the newest truck is one year old and the oldest truck is 18 years old.

Even as recently as 1971, fire crews would on occasion use buckets to carry water to a fire. Today, the department has state-of-the-art fire fighting vehicles and equipment and a pressurized city water system in most of the old city area.

Forty years ago, a fireman’s turnout gear consisted of a mix of plastic and rubber coats and long rubber fire boots. Today’s modern coats, boots, gloves, pants and helmets will protect a firefighter in a fire with a temperature in excess of 1000 degrees.

Long gone is the old two-bay fire garage that was located where Wyoming Drug is today, replaced by a seven-stall modern fire hall attached to the Wyoming Community Center and City Hall building.

He has also watched as the department moved from a social club to an organization built on the training and discipline needed to provide a very important public service.

Service & Family

How long Berry continues with fire service is not certain. He returns as fire chief this year and says he will likely continue to serve for at least the short-term until he turns 65 in a year.

“I like to keep my options open,” he said.

In the one year of the past 30 when he did not serve as chief, a busy work load was the deciding factor. There are no such concerns today.

He worked at the former Northwest Airlines for 28 years, retiring in 2005. He parlayed his Air Force skills to the private aviation career. After leaving the airline, he spent six years in management with Sunrise Fiberglass in Wyoming, retiring for a second time last August.

Berry says he enjoys “staying connected” in his home town.

That was one of the reasons the Berrys teamed with Sue’s parents to start the Wyoming Hardware Store in 1972. They ran the business until 1977. It is the Wyoming Ace Hardware today.

He does have plenty on his plate. The Berrys have two sons — Scott, an attorney in Princeton who is married with five kids, and Greg, a television assistant news director in Birmingham, AL who is married with three kids. There are three sets of twins among the Berry grandchildren.

As a volunteer who has served in parts of five decades, Berry can say he has grown stronger from those rookie years to today being the department’s senior member. He’s all the better for it, he says.