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Lonnie Sather began his firefighting career nearly 30 years ago with a simple goal: To make a difference.
Sather’s last day as assistant fire chief with the Minot Fire Department is May 23. He’s calling it a career after 29 years, 10 months, and 8 days.
“But who’s counting, right?” he said, a sly smile on his face. “I’m looking forward to a summer of golfing and fishing, and my wife, Rhonda, is looking forward to me helping more around the house. In the fall, I’ll figure out what I want to do when I grow up.”
Whatever his future holds, Sather has left an indelible mark on the fire service – and on the Minot Fire Department and the community.
“I think I’ve made a big difference in some cases. I’ve had dead people bring me pizza and Easter baskets,” he said. “These are people that the last time I saw them, they were clinically dead but survived through CPR or other procedures. There’s not much that can make you feel better than knowing you’ve not only changed someone’s life, but the lives of their entire family.”
Making a difference is something Sather, born and raised in Velva, has been doing since he started his firefighting career there in 1988 as a volunteer.
“The camaraderie, working with great people…I really liked it,” he said. “Actually, in 1991 I was planning to go to Minnesota and go to college when my brother called and said someone at the Minot Fire Department was retiring, and that I should apply. So I did.”
Sather was hired from a pool of 78 applicants. He’s been at the Minot Fire Department since July 15, 1991.
“I knew going in that it was something I liked. I didn’t know how much I liked it until I had been here about a year,” he said. “But I knew I had found my niche.”
Everything about the job appealed to him: The people, the excitement of the unknown calls, and especially learning new things.
“I still feel that way. I’m still learning something every day,” Sather said. “I still love the sense of family and the camaraderie. It’s a career like no other. You really do have another family.”
That sense of family is clearly evident at the Minot Fire Department, where plenty of people have spent 2021 half-jokingly trying to convince Sather to delay his retirement. Perhaps no one has good-naturedly tried harder to keep Sather on the job than Fire Chief Kelli Kronschnabel.
“Lonnie and I have a cohesion that has been really nice. We work really well together,” said Kronschnabel, who has been chief since 2016. “He’s a great leader and he’s been a great balance for me.”
Kronschnabel said Sather has been a valuable asset to her since she was hired as chief after beginning her career in Grand Forks.
“As an outside chief, it’s been key for me to have someone like Lonnie and Dean Lenertz before him to help me adjust to this position,” the chief said. “Lonnie knew the people here, and he’s someone I’ve grown to trust. I told him he needed to screw up a little bit at the end here so it wasn’t so painful when he leaves, but I know that’s not going to happen.”
Sather was promoted to captain in 2001, became battalion chief in 2016, and moved into the assistant chief’s chair in 2018. He’s enjoyed all of his roles, and the varying levels of responsibility that come with each job.
It’s been nearly three decades, but he still clearly remembers how his career began.
“When you walk in the door, you’re the new guy so it’s uncomfortable. But within a couple of months, you fit right in,” he recalled. “My very first night on shift, I didn’t sleep a wink. I was getting used to a new way of life for me and my family. You meet a lot of new people when you start and it’s overwhelming.”
Sather said he did what he advises all new firefighters to do: Put your head down, work hard, listen, and do what you’re supposed to do.
“Once I was through probation, that’s when I really dug in and became very involved in the training side of things,” he said. “When you start, your goal is not to stand out. Your goal is to do what you’re supposed to do and learn.”
Sather threw himself into educating himself and fellow firefighters through the department’s constant training. He’s taught countless classes during his career, both within the department and in the community.
“Education was probably my biggest attribute. I believe it’s everyone’s job to teach those under them to do their job correctly,” he said. “The only drawback that some people see is that someday the younger firefighters will take their job. I’ve never thought that way. I’ve always felt it was my job to teach people how to do my job.”
When emergency calls come in and the firefighters respond, education and training are vital to a successful outcome.
“If you don’t learn to do this job right, you’re putting yourself, the public, and your co-workers in danger,” Sather explained. “We have to take that into account. It’s our responsibility. Everyone has the common goal of being there when we’re needed and doing what we’re supposed to do. We train for that every day.”
Through the years of utilizing their training to help people, there have been success stories – and tragedies. Both are hard to forget.
“I’ve had some really terrible calls involving children, and I’ll never forget those,” Sather said quietly. “You have to find a way to get it out of your mind. If you’re thinking about it, you have to talk about it. But some calls you don’t ever leave behind.”
One of the first serious calls of Sather’s career involved the death of a 40-year-old man.
“That bothered me all night long. You learn to deal with it, but you never get used to seeing tragic events,” he said. “We encourage our firefighters to vent amongst the crew so they don’t take it home. That’s important because we try to leave our work life at work.”
In those situations, the sense of family among firefighters plays a big role.
“Everyone here cares about each other like they’re family,” Sather said. “You can lean on each other to get through the tough times. There’s a really big support group here.”
Aside from the tragedies, there have also been countless success stories in Sather’s career, when emergency situations have had positive outcomes. Rescues, life-saving medical treatment, or saving someone’s home and property from fire.
“I also helped deliver one baby, which was born into our hands,” Sather said. “And then a couple weeks later the mother brought the baby in to meet us. Those are feel good moments that you don’t forget.”
Two other moments have stuck in Sather’s mind through the years:
The first was when Chief Harold Haugstad promoted Sather to captain after more than nine years. “He told me he didn’t know what to think of me during my first year, but that I really buckled down and got involved once I was through probation. That was great to hear from him,” Sather said.
The second involved Lloyd Goldade, who worked with Sather for 10 years.
“He told me this just a few months ago. He asked me if I remembered when I asked him if he thought I would be a lieutenant some day. I don’t remember asking him that, but he remembered it, which really surprised me. Obviously I aspired to move through the ranks, even when I was young.”
There are some things he won’t miss about the job, notably making difficult decisions, whether it was during his time on the truck or when he was an administrator.
“I will miss the excitement and adrenaline rush of the calls, and I’ll miss knowing I could have helped had I been there,” he said. “But I definitely won’t miss being there for the serious calls, and I won’t miss the stressful personnel decisions. Any decision that affects someone’s life is difficult.”
While his career is ending, Sather’s message to young recruits now is simple – and it’s the same as it would have been 30 years ago:
“I tell them that they are entering the greatest career ever, because that’s how I feel,” he said. “I try to explain the possibilities, the work environment, all the things that make it special and the satisfaction you get from helping people.”
Sather said cleaning out his office and working his final shift will be strange days, knowing his career has reached its end.
“But next Monday will be the day that will feel completely surreal,” he said. “As Rhonda’s getting ready for work, I’ll be having my coffee knowing that I don’t have anywhere to go. That will be a big adjustment. I’m going to miss so many things here.”
“My biggest hope, and I wrote this in my retirement letter, is that I hope I’ve lived up to my expectations and made a difference,” he added. “I hope I leave a legacy of some kind. That will be my satisfaction in leaving, knowing that I did what I was supposed to do and people benefitted from it. That will feel good.”