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Honoring a half a century
Bob Olsen arrives at the Brodhead Fire Department after responding to a call, only to find dozens of admirers had formed a line to greet him for a surprise birthday party meant to honor his 50 years as an active firefighter with the department. (Times photo: Bridget Cooke)
BRODHEAD - When firefighter Bob Olsen received one of thousands of fire pages in his lifetime Friday, he followed his usual steps, jumping into his tan truck and driving down to the station.

But instead of an empty lot or an open garage door with a fire truck ready to respond, Olsen drove onto pavement where more than 30 fellow emergency personnel dressed in blue were waiting after they had formed a makeshift tunnel from the lot to the door.

As Olsen stepped out of his vehicle, he walked toward the group and stopped for a moment, as if to question why they were standing there to greet him.

Then it hit him.

A surprise party for his 80th birthday. But that wasn't the only milestone his friends, family and co-workers were celebrating.

Olsen finished his 50th year as a firefighter on March 6. The inside of the station was adorned with awards Olsen had won throughout the years, from his 15-year award to his 40th, and a number of "Firefighter of the Year" plaques he had won over the decades. A slideshow of photos displayed different moments captured during his time as a firefighter, and tables of food lined the walls. A poster, created by Brodhead students of his daughter Dawn Ahrens, hung on the wall above a firetruck cake.

The greeting wasn't his only surprise of the day. State Senator Janis Ringhand stepped forward to present a plaque to Olsen, outlining his various accomplishments in different trainings throughout the years. From first aid to weapons of mass destruction, Ringhand listed more than 20 skills.

"I did all that?" Olsen asked, prompting boisterous laughter from the packed room.

Brodhead Mayor Doug Pinnow officially proclaimed it 'Robert Olsen Day' in the city and added that he wanted to personally acknowledge Olsen "because he's been my neighbor forever. And my friend."

Jerry Elmer of the mural committee extended a handshake to Olsen before informing him that the next work of art will likely be on the fire station and will include a depiction of Olsen. Fellow firefighters presented him with an axe commemorating his service with the department while 1st Assistant Chief Chris Searles referred to Olsen as "the example setter for all of the young people" within the department. Searles noted that Olsen "epitomizes" the motto of going "above and beyond."

Olsen, a native of Brodhead, began his career as a volunteer firefighter when someone set 11 fires in the area. While he had always been curious about riding around on trucks and dousing flames, Olsen decided this time to tag along. When the chief said he would submit an application on Olsen's behalf, he only had to wait two days before he was accepted to the department.

While he worked his way up through different positions, Olsen said he spent most of his time as a pump operator. Now he's usually at the steering wheel.

"Right now, I only do what I can do," Olsen said. "I don't try to be a hero and get myself in trouble."

There was a time when he was uncertain about his role on the department. His first scene was a tractor rollover, which Olsen said made him second-guess his ability to serve as firefighter. A barn fire call at 3 a.m. in negative 30-degree weather one Saturday had him questioning his sanity.

"I'm wondering, 'what am I doing here?'" Olsen said. "Those people needed help and I thought, 'I'd like to be the person to help.'"

Olsen has placed his desire to aid others as the most important during his continuing career on the Brodhead Fire Department. He said he never expected to still be active 50 years after that fateful day.

"Not in a minute," Olsen said. "I think what helps you is the satisfaction you get from helping people."

But he noted firefighters are only able to do their jobs because of support from significant others and family members.

"My family has helped me do this," Olsen said, adding the same sentiment after handing over his awards to his wife, Donna, at the fire station Friday. "Of course, I couldn't do this without my fellow firefighters."

And while 50 years would be good enough for some people to see cause for retirement, Olsen said he plans to keep going as long as his current good health permits.

"I'll do this as long as I can contribute to the cause," Olsen said. "It makes me feel good that I'm doing something for us and for the community."