No more midnight runs for fire chief

Dennis Berry’s retirement ends 41-year fire department career in Wyoming


After 41 years on the Wyoming Fire Department, Dennis Berry is now retired. He logged 29 years as fire chief and another eight years as an assistant fire chief. (Photo by Cliff Buchan)
After 41 years on the Wyoming Fire Department, Dennis Berry is now retired. He logged 29 years as fire chief and another eight years as an assistant fire chief. (Photo by Cliff Buchan)

Cliff Buchan
Staff Writer

What a difference a day can make. No more fire reports to fill out. No more fire department meetings to attend. No more middle-of-the-night fire calls. No pagers going off.

Such is the life for an ex-fire chief and Dennis Berry is enjoying it.

As the minutes on the 2012 time clock melted away, so did Berry’s 41-year career on the Wyoming Fire Department. It was a Herculean run for Berry, 65, who spent 29 years as fire chief and eight years as an assistant fire chief.

He has officially retired from the department. As of Jan. 1, 2013, J.J. Hastings is the new chief in Wyoming. His father, John Hastings, is in close support as an assistant fire chief.

“You’ve got to let go,” Berry said, commenting on his decision to sever ties with the department completely. “I think it’s for the better.”

The History

Berry was a wide-eyed young man when he signed on as a volunteer fireman in 1971 just days after returning home from service in the U.S. Air Force that included duty in Vietnam. His first fire call was to a trailer house fire on East Viking Lane.

It was Neil Gatzow, a Wyoming pal who had also come home from the military, who coaxed Berry into joining. It was a way for both to offer community service while putting down roots in their hometown.

Gatzow would remain on the fire department for a number of years before turning his community service to the planning commission and eventually the city council and the job of mayor.

Berry? It was all fire service for the 1966 Forest Lake High School graduate who paired his long fire career with a 28-year stint at Northwest Airlines.

He retired from Northwest in 2005 and spent the next six years in management at Sunrise Fiberglass in Wyoming, working for another Wyoming friend of many years, Barney Rieck. Rieck is also a retired firefighter in Wyoming.

Berry has spanned parts of five decades in his service to Wyoming. It has been a time of remarkable change in form of equipment and the area the fire department serves, he says.

“We had no radios or pagers in the early days,” Berry said. “Just the fire siren and fire phones. How did you manage?”

When Berry joined the fire department in 1971, it served an area where fewer than 1000 people lived. Today, the Wyoming area (the former township included) is home to more than 7000 people and has seen a substantial increase in homes and commercial businesses and factories.

Berry has helped chaperone the growth of the department, too. When he signed on in 1971, the department operated with aging equipment housed in a two-stall fire garage in the old municipal building that stood where Wyoming Drug is today.

A seven-stall fire hall today houses state-of-the-art fire fighting equipment. Volunteers train in a professional manner necessary to provide the best possible fire protection to the community, Berry says.

During his years at the helm, Berry says he has also worked to build close ties with neighboring fire departments. The mutual aid pacts that exist provide a valuable secondary insurance policy in the event of major fire calls when outside help is needed.

“You see the way people work together,” Berry says of the cooperation that exists with neighboring fire departments. “You see where the support comes.”

There was no drama as Berry’s career came to a close. His last fire call was a check on an overheated refrigerator in a Wyoming home.

Family Time

With retirement now upon him, Berry says he plans to spend more time with family, travel and enjoy hobbies such as model airplane building. It’s a hobby that he is sharing with several of his grandchildren.

An open house honoring Berry is scheduled for 4-8:30 p.m. this Friday, Jan. 11 at Stars & Strikes Entertainment Center in Wyoming. The event is open to the public. A short program and presentation is planned at 6:30 p.m.

Priority one is spending time with his wife, Sue, he says. She has battled ovarian cancer since 2001 and is now in remission, Berry says. The time for family has been curtailed because of his fire service as he on average spent 20 hours a week on fire department business, not including fire calls.

The department has averaged about 320 calls a year over the past several years, he offered.

Dennis and Sue Berry will also spend more time with their two sons and their families. Dennis, who has a twin brother, Dale, is a grandfather to three sets of twins.

Son Scott, a private practice attorney who lives and works in Princeton, has five children including two sets of twins. Son Greg, who works in television for a CBS affiliate in Birmingham, Ala., has three children, including one set of twins.

Full and final retirement will give Dennis and Sue the time and opportunity to travel. Extended stays in the south will now be possible. There are projects around the home that need tending and Berry has offered to handle some work for his son in Princeton.

Travel will rank high on their list and one big family vacation is coming this spring. “We’re going to Disney World in March,” he said. “The whole kit and kaboodle.”

It will be a new change of pace for Berry, but one he gladly accepts. He will miss his buddies on the fire department, but not the headaches that went with being the man in charge.

“I won’t miss those three o’clock in the morning fire calls.”