BURLINGTON — There has been a member of the Peterson family continually serving the City of Burlington Fire Department since March 4, 1941.
One chapter of that service ended last year when one of its longest-serving members, Dick Peterson, retired after 50 years of service.
Peterson, 77, joined the department in January 1968. His father, Howard “Pete” Peterson, is believed to have been the longest-serving firefighter in the city’s history. He served 55 years, from 1941 until 1996.
And Howard’s younger son and Dick’s brother, Jim, has been on the department for 48 years.
“It’s in our family. It’s in our blood,” Jim Peterson, 71, said.
Jim Peterson made no indication that he will call it quits before his 50-year anniversary comes up, saying that he will stay on the department as long as he is still in good health.
“The fire department years ago used to be a family affair,” said Bill Milatz, a Burlington firefighter from 1971-2006. “If Dad was in, then Dad would push for the sons to get in.”
Milatz’s father was on the department with Howard Peterson, and Milatz grew up with Dick and Jim before later serving with them on the Fire Department.
All of the Petersons along with Milatz responded to one of the most spectacular blazes in Burlington history, the July 24, 1977, fire at St. Mary’s Catholic Church. The steeple and bells came tumbling down that day and the original damage was estimated to be $1.3 million.
“I got up and looked out the bedroom window,” Howard Peterson said in a 2002 interview, shortly before his death later that year. “I thought `Oh boy, we’ve got our hands full here.’ The closer I got, I realized how bad it was. Luckily, nobody got hurt.”
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Dick Peterson worked his way up to deputy chief and then stepped back down in his last few years with the department. That Peterson stayed with the department instead of retiring then spoke to his character, said current Burlington Fire Chief Alan Babe.
“It didn’t matter what the title was,” Babe said. “It was service above self.”
Not only was Dick Peterson a volunteer firefighter, but also an educator, sportsman and U.S. Army veteran. He spent 34 years at Burlington High School, 29 of those as assistant principal. He was a referee and umpire with community sports programs, and also spent 21 years in the U.S. Army reserves after being serving a tour of active duty in Germany during the Cold War.
“Dick was very dedicated. You could always count on him if he said he was going to be somewhere,” said former Burlington Fire Chief Dick Lodle.
If not for Peterson, Lodle may not have joined the department — let alone moved up to chief. The two knew each other from BHS. Lodle was hired as an industrial education teacher there in 1972, and he and Peterson — who was by then the assistant principal — became good friends.
“He basically recruited me to be on the Fire Department,” Lodle said.
If anything, Dick Peterson will be remembered for his dedication and commitment to always being there to perform his duties — no matter if they were for the Fire Department or any other part of his life.
“You’ve just got to respect a man who can give that much back to the community, when you’re talking the number of years in the fire service, the years he put into the military and the number of years he put into the school district,” Babe said. “He’s just the Energizer Bunny.”
And while Dick Peterson may be off the department, his legacy lives on.
“Whenever there was a call, he was always there,” Lodle said. “No matter how big or small it was, he was always there, whether it was 3 in the morning or the afternoon, or during a Thanksgiving or Christmas meal. Whatever it was, Dick would be there.”
“You’ve just got to respect a man who can give that much back to the community, when you’re talking the number of years in the fire service, the years he put into the military and the number of years he put into the school district.” Burlington Fire Chief Alan Babe, speaking about retired member Dick Peterson