Wis. firefighter's retirement ends 150-year era at fire dept.

Marc Behrend is a sixth-generation firefighter and whose ancestors joined the city's fire department in 1867


By Rob Schultz
The Wisconsin State Journal

MADISON, Wis. — When Marc Behrend was “on the nozzle” with the lead hose at a fire during his 28-year career with the Madison Fire Department, his fellow crew members marveled at his calm, confident demeanor and lightning-quick reactions as he worked his way through a burning building.

Behrend, who will retire Friday just one day shy of his 56th birthday, earned the most coveted job among firefighters because he snuffed out fires like he stopped hockey pucks as a goalie for the University of Wisconsin men’s hockey team, leading the Badgers to two NCAA titles in the 1980s. He went on to play on the 1984 U.S. Olympic hockey team and spent four years in the National Hockey League.

Phil Behrend and Marc Behrend. (Photo/Madison Fire Department)
Phil Behrend and Marc Behrend. (Photo/Madison Fire Department)

But as important as Behrend’s athletic and hockey training may have been to his development as a firefighter, he also has rich firefighter-red blood running through him. His family name is revered within the Madison Fire Department because of five straight generations of Behrends who suited up for the department ahead of him.

“All that didn’t seem that big of a deal when I started out as a firefighter,” Behrend said as he sat on a couch next to his father, Phil Behrend Jr., who retired in 1994 after more than 36 years with the department. “But the older you get, you look back at it and you realize it’s really amazing. I don’t know if it’s as important to me as it is an important part of Madison and the fire department. I think that’s pretty cool.”

Over a 150-year span that began two years after the end of the Civil War and is ending with Marc Behrend’s retirement, he or one of his ancestors protected Madison. The six generations of Behrends helped douse some of the city’s most historic blazes, tended to thousands of injured souls, delivered or saved a handful of babies, cooked countless gourmet-style meals and enjoyed a camaraderie unique to fire stations and their crews.

“The department constantly tries to keep up with tradition and lets people know the stories of people who served before them,” said Chief Steven Davis. “As far as the Behrend name is concerned, I think it’s up to all of us to keep the name going and let people know what it did for the city of Madison.”

THE BEHREND LEGACY

Behrend’s father, Phil, who is 79 and lives with his wife, Kathy, on Madison’s West Side, spent most of his career as a paramedic and was a strong union leader.

On Jan. 15, 1988, he was one of the first to arrive at the City-County Building after Aaron Lindh fatally shot Dane County Coroner Clyde Chamberlain and county legal secretary Eleanor Townsend. Phil tended to Erik Erickson, a Justice Department officer who also was shot by Lindh but survived.

Phil also was one of eight paramedics on duty at Camp Randall Stadium when students trying to storm the field crushed other students into a chain-link fence surrounding the field after the UW football team’s 13-10 victory over Michigan in October 1993.

About 70 students were hospitalized but none died, even though some did not have a pulse when they were found by paramedics.

“It was an amazing citywide medical response,” Phil Behrend said.

On a happier note, Phil also delivered three babies.

Phil Behrend Sr., who was Phil’s father and Marc’s grandfather, joined the department in 1940 and earned kudos as a chef and driver for Chief Ralph McGraw, according to the department’s unofficial historian, Mike Fuss.

Nic B. Behrend, who was Phil Sr.’s father and Marc’s great-grandfather, joined the department in 1912 and was lauded as a hero after he rescued a 3-month-old from a fire at the Martin Pregler home, 1627 Adams St., on Jan. 1, 1929.

According to newspaper accounts, firefighters thought they had rescued everyone from the home until the baby’s mother convinced them otherwise. Nic broke a window and was creeping around the burning house on his hands and knees before he heard the baby whimpering and rescued her.

Nic went on to become the chief of Station No. 6 on Park Street in 1936.

When Nic died in 1942, the pallbearers at his funeral included the chief, Edward Page, two assistant chiefs that included future chief Ed Durkin, and three captains.

Jake Behrend, who was Nic’s father and Marc’s great-great-grandfather, joined the department in 1900 but also led a busy life outside of the firehouse.

He was acting mayor of Madison and the alderman for Madison’s 8th Ward around his home in the area near Gorham and State streets. He also may have been a member of the Madison Police Department before joining the fire department.

Nicholas Behrend, who was Jake’s father and Marc’s great-great-great-grandfather, joined the Madison volunteer fire department in 1867 — 11 years after Madison was incorporated and a fire department was organized.

Within four years, Nicholas was in charge of the Andrew Proudfit Engine Company No. 2’s new steam engine.

In front of his home on the 300 block of North Broom Street, he installed a bell for people to ring to alert the volunteers of a fire.

During the winter, after hearing the bell and before the volunteers’ arrival, Nicholas’ children would run to the engine house to prepare kindling wood to stoke the steam engine.

A COMMON THREAD

If there was a common denominator among all the Behrend men, it was their calmness under pressure.

Nic showed it saving the baby on New Year’s Day in 1929, Phil Jr. showed it in every medical emergency, and Marc showed it “on the nozzle.”

Marc’s shining moment occurred in 2014 when his quick reaction to a burning apartment complex under construction on Apollo Way on the Far East Side saved at least a dozen homes, said Mike Dibble, another ex-UW hockey goalie who spent years in the fire department. He retired earlier this year as a division chief.

Working out of nearby Station 13, Behrend and his crewmates were the first to arrive, and they immediately turned the water from the hydrants on the neighboring homes instead of on the burning apartment building, where the flames were raging out of control.

Dibble said Behrend and his crew found hydrants buried in brush upwind of the fire that were more effective at pumping water on the nearby homes. Some other firefighters and their equipment suffered in the intense heat as they tried to use hydrants closer to the burning building, Dibble said.

“If Engine 13 doesn’t do their job, if Engine 3 and Engine 5 don’t do their jobs, that could have turned into a much more horrific fire than it already was,” Dibble said. “They saved a lot of homes from burning.”

A SEVENTH GENERATION?

Marc didn’t think seriously about becoming a firefighter until his pro hockey career began to fizzle.

Neither his family name nor his hockey success got him anywhere when he first expressed interest in joining the department, and he worked as a garbage collector for a year before he finally got in.

“That’s where pro athletes sometimes have trouble,” Dibble said of the transition to everyday life. “But Marc never had that trouble. He just knew he had to get a job and kept after his goal to be a firefighter.”

While Phil Jr. was a hard-nosed, no-nonsense, tough-as-nails crew member, much in the tradition of his grandfather, Nic, Marc was more like his grandfather, Phil Sr., and took a laid-back approach to everything but fighting fires.

“They made their fathers proud,” said Davis.

There is a chance a seventh generation Behrend could join the department ranks. Marc’s son, Eric, 24, who is earning a two-year degree at a school in Colorado where he also is an assistant hockey coach, has expressed interest in the past about joining the department. Marc also has a daughter, Krista, 26, who is a nurse in Madison.

If Eric chooses to apply to join the department, he’ll be part of a group of anywhere from 1,500 to 1,700 people vying for about 30 jobs, Davis said.

“The numbers aren’t in your favor when you apply to be a firefighter,” he said.

Marc is taking after his father and staying out of Eric’s way as he mulls over what to do. Phil remembers how long he had to wait before Marc, his only child, decided to apply to join the department. “I figured when he gave up taking pucks in the head he’d come on the job,” Phil said. “I was more than happy when he did.”

So was Marc, who offered no complaints about his career as a firefighter during his exit interview with Davis last week.

“Most guys have something to complain about just from being on the job for so long,” Davis said. “Not Marc. He was just a guy sitting at the table, sipping coffee and cracking jokes.”

Gary Schreiber, a crewmate of Marc’s at Station 13, said he will miss Marc’s laughter and positive energy that filled the station. “It was an honor working with Marc,” he said. “It’s sad that the Behrend era has to end.”

Dibble couldn’t agree more. “The Madison Fire Department is going to be one great fireman short now,” he said.

Copyright 2017 The Wisconsin State Journal

McClatchy-Tribune News Service
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