On a Sunday afternoon in 1968, a man set 11 fires to fields around Brodhead, sending the fire department on a wild goose chase.
Bob Olsen, nearly 30 years old at the time, was curious, so he followed the crew around. He was a firefighter less than a week later.
Fifty years have passed, and Olsen still hangs out in firetrucks.
The Brodhead native celebrates a couple of milestones this week.
Tuesday marked his 50th anniversary as a volunteer firefighter for the Brodhead Fire Department. He has served under seven of Brodhead’s 11 fire chiefs and is the longest-serving firefighter in the city, he said.
And Friday will be his 80th birthday.
Olsen said he does not plan to hang up his helmet anytime soon. He takes life day by day and will step down when the right day comes—whenever that is.
A lot has changed since Olsen first hopped on the back of a firetruck.
Today’s firefighters would never let him hop on the truck the way he did that Sunday decades earlier, he said. And he certainly would not have been allowed to respond to his first fire wearing half of his equipment, as he did in 1968.
The worst fire Olsen remembers was a barn fire set by pigs that had knocked over heat lamps. It was the middle of the night and 30 degrees below zero. Olsen asked himself: Why are you doing this?
The answer was simple, he said. Being a firefighter is a way of giving back to the community.
And if that wasn’t enough, Olsen also served 12 years on the Brodhead School Board.
A lot has changed over 50 years. Olsen said safety standards have improved significantly since he joined the department. Many regulations have had positive results, although a few have been pesky to follow, he said.
He also welcomed such advancements as the Jaws of Life extrication apparatus, better equipment and female firefighters.
A gleam of light reflected off a red stone on Olsen’s ring as he sat on the back of a firetruck Tuesday.
His wife, Donna, designed the ring when Olsen celebrated his 35th year as a volunteer firefighter.
He and Donna raised three children in Brodhead: Deann, David and Dawn. To support his family, Olsen worked at Warner Electric Brake and Clutch in Beloit for 17 years and at Martin Automatic in Rockford, Illinois, for 27 years until he retired.
His family helped him survive 50 years of firefighting, he said.
Donna graciously accepted her husband’s absence at dozens of parties, weddings, trips to the grocery store and other events. She understood that when the whistle blew, Olsen had to leave.
His kids followed Donna’s lead.
At nearly 80 years old, Olsen now is limited in what he can do as a volunteer.
He said he does everything he can, including teaching young firefighters how to operate the trucks. Running into a burning house, however, is not on his to-do list anymore.
Olsen is able to do so much at his age because he receives a lot of help from the younger people at the department, he said.
“I couldn’t do it without them,” he said about a half-dozen times during an interview.
If you ask him, the firefighting veteran can list the names and jobs of everyone at the department. He knows his team members well and can rattle off inside jokes they tell, including one explaining how Olsen used to go to fires on horseback with water buckets.
On every Brodhead firetruck is a motto: “Everybody goes home.”
Olsen said that’s a testament to the department’s dedication to safety. In 50 years, he never saw anyone die in a fire.
Olsen believes the team he works with today is the most dedicated team he has seen in 50 years. He is proud to watch the department grow and hopes to keep watching for years to come.
Blackhawk Community Credit Union plans to honor generations of local General Motors employees with a “legacy center”—a museum of sorts that could involve memorabilia and even structural material from the former auto assembly plant.
The center is still in planning stages, and a location hasn’t yet been selected, credit union officials said.
The credit union’s announcement of a legacy center comes as the former GM plant is slated for demolition. Commercial Development Company, which bought the plant late in 2017, plans to begin razing all or some of the 4.8 million-square-foot building in coming weeks.
Sherri Stumpf, CEO of Blackhawk Community Credit Union; Lisa Palma, member services vice president; and board Chairwoman Mary Frederick said the plan calls for a museum-like space—possibly a standalone building—that would keep alive the memory of a manufacturing plant that supported thousands of local families for nearly a century.
“As the bulldozers arrive and demolition of the oldest General Motors plant begins just before its centennial, it’s more important than ever to ensure that the strong work ethic and iconic history of our community is honored,” Frederick said in a statement Tuesday.
Stumpf and Palma said the legacy center could have an interactive historical timeline built into its walls, along with historical displays of items from the plant, and even art or sculptures built from structural pieces of the building.
The credit union, which has 12 branches—four of them in Janesville—was founded in 1965 to provide financial services for employees of GM and Fisher Body, including United Auto Workers Local 95 members. The credit union says it still serves retired GM workers and former employees who relocated to other GM plants across the U.S.
GM shuttered the Janesville plant in 2009. In December 2017, it sold the plant to brownfield redevelopment firm Commercial Development.
Stumpf and Palma said the GM legacy center is part of the credit union’s long-term plans. It could be part of new credit union facility in Janesville or a standalone building, they said.
Commercial Development has said it plans to redevelop the plant site within 12 to 18 months and market it as multiple industrial or commercial redevelopment sites.
Palma and Stumpf said credit union members have visited the former plant in recent weeks, and they plan to work with Commercial Development to claim some structural elements of the property, such as steel I-beams, bricks, flagpoles, picnic tables and other material for use in the legacy center.
The credit union will design and build the center itself, but it’s working with General Motors to gather memorabilia and items GM had removed from the plant and relocated to Detroit.
The credit union also is working with members and its own employees and board members who are former GM workers to form committees that will help plan the legacy center.
“We want our members to plan this. We have a number of (former GM employee) people that are still on our board of directors and some employees here that once worked at the plant,” Stumpf said. “It’s kind of our opportunity to get input from a wide variety of people and make sure that what we’re doing means something to the folks who worked there.”
Stumpf and Palma said that under one idea, the legacy center would place time capsules with historical items from the former plant underneath a riverwalk area the city plans in downtown Janesville. Each capsule would have a marker placed above it describing its contents.
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