Fifty years is a long time to stay with one job.
But when that job is a non-paid volunteer position, it takes an even greater amount of dedication and loyalty.
After spending 50 years with the Redding Township Volunteer Fire Department, Walter Kiste made his retirement official during the department’s monthly board meeting in December.
Story continues below gallery
“It’s just time,” said Kiste, 74. “A feller gets to where you know you can’t handle what you need to. Fifty feet of five-inch hose, that’s a pretty good load … and then you aren’t as quick as you used to be. I’m just real thankful that it has worked out this long. The good Lord gave me the strength and knowledge to do what I had to get accomplished, and it’s just time for younger people to take over and keep it going.”
Chief Randy Thompson said he and the other firefighters knew Kiste’s retirement was coming, but it was still a sad day during the December meeting.
“He told us earlier in the year that he was done, so I knew it was coming, but it really didn’t kick in and take effect until he came in and turned in his gear and he says, ‘I’m retiring,’” Thompson said. “It was funny because (the January) meeting, Walter was there, and it was great to see him. I enjoyed it very much.”
Thompson said it says a lot about the type of person Kiste is for being a volunteer for 50 years.
“You just have to love it to be dedicated for a volunteer firefighter because it is very dangerous work; it can be,” Thompson said. “It just has to be pure dedication and loyalty to your community, and that’s what Walter is.”
In November 1965, the handful of men who had helped form the fire department four years earlier were looking for volunteers to join the force.
On Dec. 1, 1965, Kiste started a full-time job at Cummins Inc. During his 30-year career, he worked at area plants and the warehouse and held a variety of jobs.
At the time, Kiste said about 40 percent of the firefighters worked at Cummins, and they all worked different shifts, so there was always someone available for the fire department if a call went out.
When he began with the fire department, Kiste said firefighters were required to have 20 hours of training to earn their state card and certificate. A state official would come down to the fire station in Reddington to conduct the training in intervals.
Today, 48 hours of training is required, plus 24 hours for hazardous materials training. The department also encourages its firefighters to take 24 hours of emergency medical technician training.
Another change with the department came several years ago when it started receiving tax money and a board was created. Before that, a representative from the department was responsible for collecting membership dues from township residents to keep the fire station going. Kiste had that job for a while.
The department’s fleet has changed, too. Kiste used to drive an Autocar firetruck, and the department had a van it used to store equipment that wouldn’t fit in the firetrucks.
Equipment also has changed over the years. Kiste said each firefighter’s turnout gear used to be good for 20 years. Now, an inside piece has to be updated every five years, and an outside piece has to be replaced every 10 years.
“So we have been buying five new turnout gears ever year to get everybody updated,” he said.
About three years ago, the department had a second station built in Rockford. Kiste said that made a difference in serving the people in that area of the township that extends toward Cortland.
“We were proud to get it,” Kiste said of the new station.
Kiste said most of the department’s calls are for fires involving grass, tractors and combines, and providing lifting assistance for ambulance personnel.
The department also occasionally responds to a house or barn fire. One time, Kiste said firefighters responded to a fire at a barn that had livestock in it. The biggest obstacle in fighting the fire was the hay in the barn. Firefighters built a nozzle out of a pipe and stuck it in the hay to put the fire out, he said.
The biggest fire Kiste responded to was at a cabinet factory along U.S. 31 in Reddington.
“I was around on one side, and the flames were almost as tall as the trees,” Kiste said.
Firefighters learned the factory owner had just received a load of barrels of glue and thinner. When they caught fire, it caused the tops of the barrels to pop off.
When firefighters were called to the scene, Kiste said most of them had been to a square dance, so they had to change from their slick pants and cowboy boots to firefighter’s gear. Some of them had stopped at a Seymour restaurant to eat and were in the middle of dinner when the call came out.
“Being a volunteer fireman, you’re not sitting at the fire station,” Kiste said. “You get called out sometimes, and you just go.”
In 1995, after retiring from Cummins, Kiste and his brother got back into showing Haflinger horses. They did that for a couple of years.
“The Haflinger is like a half-sized Belgian (horse),” Kiste said. “They are stout, strong, and they work, and they’ve got a good attitude.”
His brother died at age 74, and Kiste no longer has any livestock.
Now that he has been retired from his full-time job for more than 20 years and is no longer with the fire department, Kiste said he will stay busy helping with maintenance work a couple of days a week at Reddington Christian Church, where he and his wife, Betty, have been members since the 1980s.
On Sunday, a retirement celebration dinner was conducted at the church, and Kiste was presented a plaque for his 50 years of service with the fire department.
Thompson said he was honored to present the plaque to the department’s longest-tenured firefighter. Thompson has been with the department for about 3½ years and attended meetings and went through training with Kiste.
“He has taught me some stuff, and I don’t know how you repay that knowledge,” Thompson said. “I’ve been on a few fire scenes with Walter and medical runs and stuff like that. They way Walter comes in and takes charge, he knows exactly what to do before it even happens. He’s just a great guy to stand back and watch, and you will learn.”
Thompson said Kiste encouraged him to get in the running for the chief position late last year.
“He came to my house and came walking through my door and looked me right in the eye and says, ‘What is the matter with you?’” Thompson said. “I said, ‘What do you mean?’ because he caught me off-guard. He said, ‘Well, you’re not running for anything.’ I said, ‘Walter, I never gave it any thought.’ The next thing I know, my name is on the chief list.”
Even though Kiste is retired, Thompson expects his legacy to carry on.
“He’s the most honest person I’ve ever met,” Thompson said. “He’s very well respected, and his input is very important to the department, and I hope he continues to come to our meetings.”
Name: Walter Kiste
Education: Seymour High School (1960); he was the first in his family to graduate from high school
Occupation: Retired in 1995 after 30 years with Cummins Inc.; recently retired after 50 years with the Redding Township Volunteer Fire Department
Family: Wife, Betty Kiste; three sons, Douglas Kiste, Gregory Kiste and Timothy Kiste; five grandchildren, Jacob Kiste, Jesse Kiste, Dakota Kiste, Kate Kiste and Tori Kiste