Janesville69.4°

Fire chief's impact was far-reaching

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Jason Smathers
June 12, 2010
— It's hard to imagine what Williams Bay might be like if it hadn't been for Melvin Hansen.

There might be no rescue squad.


Water in the bay might still be covered with weeds.


Residents might not know the community's history as well.


But Hansen wouldn't have admitted being anything special.


Hansen, who died May 16 at the age of 87, was a soft-spoken man. He grew up in a household of men after his mother passed away. He developed a reputation for holding his tongue unless something needed to be said.


Behind that calm demeanor and reserved style laid a wealth of knowledge.


"Mel could have been a local history teacher," Williams Bay Fire Chief Doug Smith said. "He would tell you how it was back then, whether it was something to do with the fire department or the village."


His family had settled the area after emigrating from Denmark. They owned the land between what is now Highway 50 and the lake. His great-grandfather helped settle Williams Bay, and his father helped found the fire department, serving as its first chief.


Following in his father's footsteps, Hansen joined the department after high school in 1942 and founded the rescue squad in 1961. He stayed there until recently, attending regular meetings until the summer of 2009. His 68 years of service made him one of the longest serving firefighters in Wisconsin.


Sometimes he knew more village history than village administrators.


Son-in-law Tom Leith said when the village picked a spot to dig for a project, Hansen told them the spot had sewer lines that would get in the way. It wasn't on the map, but the city probed it anyway.


The maps were wrong.


"Sure enough, they found the lines there," Leith said. "They just said, ‘You probably saved us thousands of dollars.'"


He was a living reference book for Williams Bay.


When no one else could catch fish, Hansen would be the one person pulling in carp, as he knew all the right spots. Even in his later years, he could tell you what area had served as Chicago Mayor Richard Daley's private fishing lodge years ago.


If he wasn't at the firehouse, Hansen was 100 yards away at the lake. He ran a bait shop and boat delivery service until 1989, when times changed and the village got rid of delivery service on the lake.


But he found another way to get involved, lobbying the village to clean up the weeds in the bay. Eventually, the village hired him to do it. When children came down to the pier, he'd have his fishing poles and worms ready to teach them to fish. Daughter Kathryn Leith said he loved kids and tried to do his best to keep the village family friendly.


Hansen became less involved in fire station activities in his last few years, but he didn't slow down. Even after he moved to an assisted living community, he would go outside to shovel snow from the walk and work with staff to make sure the proper emergency equipment was in place.


"He definitely made a mark on the community," Kathryn Leith said, "but he would have wondered what all the fuss was about."



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