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Answering the call: Rufer marks 50 years with MFD
Monroe firefighter Ken Rufer celebrated 50 official years with the Monroe Fire Department this week. (Times photo: Anthony Wahl)
By Emily Massingill

For the Times

MONROE - At the home of Kenneth Rufer, the sounds of the scanner fill the air. No one really notices; after all, there are about five in their ranch-style home and at least two of them are on at all times.

Rufer's wife, Dottie, says their home has run the scanners like that for about the past five decades or so.

On Tuesday, Jan. 14, Rufer celebrated 50 official years with the Monroe Fire Department. And he has no plans to hang up his gear just yet.

After countless nights of climbing into a warm bed along side of his wife, now of 54 years, and peacefully drifting off to sleep only to wake up to a call where he has to leave quickly, never knowing how long he'll be gone, it's become a way of life for the family.

"You don't think about that," Rufer said of the inconvenience his service has possibly brought to his life over the years. "You're just glad you heard the pager."

It's seems natural for Rufer to enjoy helping his community, neighbors and friends over so many years with the department. And having to suddenly leave events like birthdays, anniversaries, weddings, and ushering in church to answer calls hasn't seemed to phase him.

"I've missed a few meals," Rufer said with a laugh.

Joining the department

Rufer was born and raised on a farm outside of Monroe and attended Monroe High School. He and Dottie built their current home in town in the early 1970s on an empty lot their children used to play ball on.

For Rufer, the offer to join the Monroe Fire Department was something he considered for about six months before fully accepting. He worked across the street from City Hall at the time for Lanz Hardware on 16th Avenue. Several people were encouraging him to join the department since he was so close, but Rufer wasn't sure.

Soon enough, the 21-year-old felt compelled to join. He asked his boss if he could answer calls during the day and received full support. Rufer joined his uncle Dan and then fire chief and friend, Joe Benkert, as firefighter No. 42 for the department.

He was the youngest firefighter at that time and spent his first year on probation while training, sometimes three nights a week, and going to calls.

At that time, Rufer trained entirely within the department by its leaders. They trained using the ladders, setting up and tearing down, operating the hoses and learning about different water pressures. There were also books to read and tests he had to pass. While on call, he recalls making $2 per hour.

"I don't think there's any individual on the department that does it for the pay," he said. "And it's always been like that."

Dottie also admits that she was a little skeptical when her husband decided to join the department, but that didn't last long. Soon, the department fell into her family life and she was proud that her husband was involved.

Remembering the past

Over the years, Rufer has seen the department go through several changes - particularly safety that has increased and improved drastically over the years.

Rufer has enjoyed being a part of them and still enjoys answering calls.

"I'm not the speediest anymore," Rufer said with a smile. "We have so many young, aggressive and very good people on. I'm talking about all of the firefighters we have in the city of Monroe. But I'm still ready to beat someone out for a spot on the truck."

Back when Rufer first began with the department, a call within the city meant anyone could go as long as they could fit on the truck. Today, firefighters follow more strict guidelines, and are seated with seatbelts - meaning everyone can't always go.

Although Rufer might not remember his first fire exactly; he said there have been several over the years that stand out in his mind.

In 1965 he recalls the tornado that went through Monroe. When he heard the call, he remembers struggling to get through roadways because of so many trees and debris in the road.

He also recalls the fire at the Swiss Colony Inn Restaurant, located on the Square, which ended in a total loss. And of course, there was the fire at the junior high, which left a huge void to the City of Monroe.

"A fire is unpredictable - like a snowflake," he said. "No two fires are the same."

But over the years, Rufer has seen too many fires to remember each one. One in particular on Middle Juda Road stays with him when firefighters weren't able to save two small children. Rufer had little ones at home at that time, and the sad event stuck with him.

"The house was gone when we got there," he said. "That's been one I wanted to forget."

The calls that came out in the country were more difficult to get to back then and Rufer said he always tried to get there, knowing how badly those people needed help.

Being from Monroe, Rufer has known several people at the calls he's answered - and injuries can be hard when you know that person. But, he's always felt good about being able to help neighbors, friends and even strangers.

He's never seriously considered getting off of the department. Even when family tried luring him away to a different state for business opportunities, Rufer said it was the connection to Monroe, along with the strong attachment to the department, that's kept him here.

In the late 1960s, Rufer became an electrician and eventually owned his own business in Monroe before retiring in 2010.

While juggling work, Rufer has served in many capacities at the department as well. In 1968 he was voted in as the treasurer; in 1979 he was voted in to become Captain of the Ladders; in 1979 and in 1985 he served as the second assistant chief; in 1988 he served as first assistant chief; and served as the acting fire chief in 1988 for four months until a chief was hired. He also served five months as an acting assistant chief in 1991 and 1992 before the department hired their first full-time fire chief Ted Pagels.

"I like being around fellow firefighters and I enjoy the assistance you can give people no matter what it is. All of the friends you make - the firefighters and the people - I've gotten so many new friends in Monroe," Rufer said.

Rufer is proud to have had several family members serve with him on the department as well. His two brothers, Robert and Larry; nephews, Jeff, Jim and Alan; and son-in-law Craig Schmidt have served or are still serving. Rufer's son, David, was also a member before he died in 2007 while training with the department.