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A lasting legacy: Bemidji firefighters Bruce Hemstad and Dick Sathers retire after decades of service

After serving a combined total of nearly 80 years with the Bemidji Fire Department, Bruce Hemstad and Dick Sathers are officially hanging up their helmets.

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Dick Sathers, left, and Bruce Hemstad recently retired from the Bemidji Fire Department after nearly eight decades of combined service to the community.
Madelyn Haasken / Bemidji Pioneer
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BEMIDJI — After serving a combined total of nearly 80 years with the Bemidji Fire Department, Bruce Hemstad and Dick Sathers are officially hanging up their helmets.

Both held several different positions within the department throughout the years and were dedicated to public education efforts for both young and old.

A retirement celebration to honor their decades of service to the community will be held from 1 to 4 p.m. on Sunday, May 1, at Fire Station 2, located at 312 Lake Ave. SE.

Hemstad’s history

Bruce Hemstad’s first experience with firefighting was pure coincidence.

Originally from International Falls, his family later moved to Walker, where he would drive to and from Bemidji during the week to attend Bemidji State for business education.

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The seemingly innocuous commute from Bemidji back to Walker is when Hemstad was introduced to firefighting.

“One of the days that I was coming back home, the (Walker) Fire Department had a grass fire on the edge of town that was fairly significant,” Hemstad said. “I happened to pull over and asked if there was anything I could help with.”

As it turned out, there was. One of the older firefighters told Hemstad he could strap on a bladder bag, a portable sprayer bag filled with water, and help extinguish the grass fire.

“We finished up and the firefighter walked over to me afterward to thank me for helping,” Hemstad recalled. “He asked if I would be interested in joining the fire department.”

The firefighter told Hemstad that if he was interested, he could stop by the fire station the next week during a department meeting. He did, and from there the hiring process was simple.

“The director of the meeting said, ‘all those in favor of having this young man join the fire department, say aye,’” Hemstad said with a laugh. “That’s how this whole thing started, it was crazy. It was so different from how the standards are today.”

After four years of working part-time with the Walker Fire Department while attending BSU, Hemstad moved back to International Falls to begin his teaching career. However, he didn’t give up on his passion for firefighting and served with the International Falls Fire Department for 12 years.

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Bruce Hemstad
Contributed

He then decided to make the move back to Bemidji to be closer to family, where Hemstad and his wife owned a downtown sporting goods shop. At the time, he was unable to join the Bemidji Fire Department because his house was too far from town.

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Years later, though, the couple made another move.

“Our kids were all growing up and graduating from high school, so my wife and I decided to move into town,” Hemstad said. “I applied right away to get into the fire department.”

He initially joined the Bemidji department as a paid-on-call firefighter, soon rising through the ranks to become a foreman, captain and finally assistant chief, overseeing captains in two of the four fire stations in town.

Hemstad officially retired at the end of April after 32 years with the Bemidji Fire Department and 48 years of collective fire department service.

‘I focus on the good things’

After more than three decades serving the community, there’s a lot for Hemstad to look back on. Coming from a teaching background, he especially takes pride in the department’s public education efforts.

“I focus on the good things, like our public education projects where we work with the seniors in the community or the young kids,” he said. “That’s the kind of stuff I’m really proud of.”

Fire safety
Bemidji firefighter Bruce Hemstad talks with fifth-graders at Lincoln Elementary School during lunch in March 2014 as part of a Bemidji Fire Department program to better connect with the community and promote fire prevention.
(Pioneer file photo)

For Hemstad, dwelling on the darker parts of the job just isn’t in his nature.

“I could share the good, the bad and the ugly, but that isn’t any fun,” he said. “I just try to focus on the positive side of things.”

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He also looks back fondly on the culture of teamwork in the department.

“There’s a lot of camaraderie in the fire service and you become really close with the people that you work with,” Hemstad said. “There has to be teamwork, you can’t do things by yourself. You build a lot of trust and confidence with everybody you work with.”

With the pride he felt in the department’s efforts to increase public education paired with the sense of teamwork he had built with his fellow firefighters, retiring wasn’t an easy decision for him, so he stayed with the department for as long as he felt he could.

However, Hemstad — affectionately known as “gramps” around the department due to his age — knew this year that the time had come.

“A few years back I wasn’t ready. I’m comfortable with (retiring) now,” Hemstad said. “I told the chief when I submitted my letter that this was the right thing for me to do, and it was the right time for me to do it.”

Equipped with lifetime flight benefits from working in the past at the Bemidji Regional Airport for Delta Air Lines, Hemstad hopes his retirement will involve plenty of traveling.

“I get pretty huge discounts for flying,” Hemstad said. “I really like to travel, so that’s on my agenda.”

Besides traveling and spending more time with his grandchildren, Hemstad admittedly isn’t quite sure yet what his plans are for retirement.

“I don’t teach anymore, I don’t work at the airport anymore and I’m not going to be responding at the station anymore,” Hemstad said with a laugh. “I ask myself the question, ‘alright, what am I actually going to do now?’ Well, I’m sure I’ll do something.”

Sathers’ story

Dick Sathers was torn between a career as a police officer or a firefighter.

Born and raised in Duluth, Sathers found himself intrigued by the law enforcement and firefighting professions while serving in the U.S. Navy.

“I first had the interest as a very young person,” Sathers recalled. “While I was in the Navy, I had the interest of either being a police officer or a firefighter. In the Navy, we did some firefighting and we had fire training.”

Ultimately deciding to start going down the police route, he enrolled in a law enforcement program at Alexandria Technical and Community College after returning from the Navy.

During his time at school, Sathers heard about a job opening for a police officer at the Bemidji Police Department and quickly applied.

“I didn’t hear anything for probably over a year,” Sathers said. “I just thought, ‘OK, that application went in the trash.’”

However, the department suddenly reached out for an interview and the rest is history.

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Dick Sathers
Contributed

“I was a police officer for three years. While I was an officer, I became very interested in the fire department. I went on calls as a police officer and saw what the fire department was doing, so I had it in the back of my mind that I wanted to be a firefighter.”

From there, Sathers joined the Bemidji Fire Department as a part-time volunteer firefighter, working there in conjunction with the police department until a full-time firefighter position opened up.

“I’m so blessed to have spent three years as a police officer,” Sathers said. “I hated to leave the police department, but I knew if I moved over to the fire department I would be much happier.”

From there, Sathers climbed the ranks to captain, assistant chief and finally fire chief. After 46 years with the Bemidji Fire Department, he officially retired in late March.

‘My family has been the fire department’

Reflecting on his career, the most fulfilling aspect of the job for Sathers was the ability to see silver linings in times of distress by being able to salvage someone’s most important possessions from a fire.

One particular example of this has stayed with Sathers throughout the years. During a house fire decades ago, he and other firefighters were still at the scene after the fire was extinguished when the two children who lived at the house returned home from school.

“Of course, they were devastated and I felt absolutely horrible,” Sathers said. “It was quite a shock for them to get off the school bus and find their house destroyed by a fire.”

Though their entire home was in shambles, one of the children was only worried about one thing — his guitar. Since the fire was fully extinguished, Sathers and the boy went into the burnt house together to search for it.

“We went into his bedroom and sure enough the guitar was there in its case,” Sathers recalled. “The case was wet, but he opened it up and the guitar was perfectly fine.”

Moments like this stuck with Sathers throughout his career.

“You just feel good,” he said about helping people recover their possessions after a fire. “You may not have saved everything, of course, but you did save some things.”

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Bill Batchelder, left, and Dick Sathers, a senior firefighter for the Bemidji Fire Department, place a memorial stone and flag on longtime Bemidji Volunteer Firefighter Melvin Bahr's grave on Monday at South Arm Cemetery.
Contributed

Sathers, like Hemstad, also found pride in the department’s work to educate the community.

One accomplishment Sathers looks back on was when he and a fellow Bemidji firefighter took on the project of acquiring a family fire safety house, an educational simulation home that teaches children and adults how to safely exit a house fire.

“We’ve had the fire safety house for at least 20 or 25 years now, and we’ve put so many kids and adults through it,” Sathers said. “It was a very satisfying thing to be a part of.”

Considering he’s had a career filled with memorable moments, Sathers said it’s a bittersweet feeling to officially retire after 46 years.

“There’s a loss involved there because it’s really been my whole life. My family has been the fire department,” Sathers said. “To give something like that up and walk away from it is tough — it’s satisfying in a lot of ways, but still quite tough.”

As for his retirement plans, well, Sathers just can’t seem to let firefighting go.

“I’m a firefighter out at the airport,” Sathers admitted with a laugh. “I work part-time at the Bemidji Regional Airport for the airport commission as an aircraft rescue firefighter. That’s going to help with the withdrawals.”

Looking ahead

With some loss of seniority within the department following the retirements of Hemstad and Sathers, the door is open for younger firefighters to step up. However, the pair warn that it’s not an easy task.

“Recruiting firefighters and retaining them, not in Bemidji, not in Minnesota, but across the U.S. is a really significant problem today,” Hemstad explained. “We’ve got a lot of constant turnover.”

The amount of training that recruits have to go through, Sathers said, can be a tough reality for new firefighters to face.

“They get on, and then they realize all the training they have to do,” Sathers said. “There are a lot of hours involved before you can actually go into a live fire. That causes burnout.”

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Dick Sathers and Bruce Hemstad recently retired from the Bemidji Fire Department after nearly eight decades of combined service to the community.
Madelyn Haasken / Bemidji Pioneer

Young firefighters who put in the work and have a passion for the job, though, have a fulfilling career ahead of them.

“People get out of it as much as they put into it, and if you don’t have a sincerity about it, it might not be very interesting,” Sathers said. “If they can put in an honest effort and if they’re interested and involved, they’re going to love it — it grows on you real fast.”

Although Hemstad and Sathers are officially retired and the department is now filling up with younger faces, both plan on visiting their old stomping grounds regularly.

“Until they change the locks on me, I’m sure they’ll still let me come in and visit,” Hemstad said. “For a while, people will still tap me on the back and say ‘hey gramps, it’s good to see you.’”

Sathers shares a similar mindset.

“I’ve seen a lot of people retire, and you don’t see much of them after that. I’ve already warned the guys in the fire department that I’m not going to be one of them,” Sathers said. “I want to come back and stay in touch. I’m trying to make it so it’s not over."

Madelyn Haasken is the multimedia editor at the Bemidji Pioneer. She is a 2020 graduate of Bemidji State University with a degree in Mass Communication, with minors in writing and design. In her free time, she likes watching hockey, doing crossword puzzles and being outside.
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