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Pillager fire chief leaves behind leadership and pride in department

Pillager Area Fire and Rescue Chief Randy Lee poses in front of a fire truck Thursday. Lee retired from the fire department after serving 42 1/2 years. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

PILLAGER—Pillager Area Fire and Rescue has been a huge part of Randy Lee's life for more than four decades.

Lee, 63, retired as fire chief and from the fire department effective Dec. 31. It was an emotional decision by Lee to retire, but one that had to be made for his family—to be by his wife Kathy Lee's side.

"Due to an unforeseen event in (our) life it is with great pain and sorrow that I am writing this letter," Lee wrote in his retirement letter to his fellow firefighters and fire association members. "Kathy will need my full-time help in the coming future so because of that I would not be able to devote enough time into being chief that would be up to my own standards."

Lee spent the past 42 1/2 years with the Pillager fire department, serving as assistant fire chief for 10 years and 28 year as chief.

"This gives me great pride knowing that I was in a leader role in shaping this department into one of the best in the state," Lee wrote. "This only happened because of great teamwork by the association and department members. I feel this department has always been a leader in getting new and state-of-the-art equipment and training and delivering the best service out there to the public at a very low cost."

Lee ended his letter: "Thanks for letting me serve with and for you all."

Lee wrote his retirement letter Nov. 6 while at the hospital with his wife. Kathy Lee suffered a ruptured brain aneurysm while at the family home in Pillager. She was airlifted to St. Cloud Hospital and stayed there 45 days. Randy Lee said his wife has been recovering at home and is doing better than expected.

Lee said his wife was a part of the fire department for 40 years and served as his unofficial secretary during his years as fire chief. She helped take daily calls, took deliveries, helped with firefighting "retreats" and more.

"She was why I was able to make over 90 percent of all runs while being chief," Lee wrote in his retirement letter. "This is why I feel that time helping others now would be cheating her of time I should be helping her."

Lee said his proudest accomplishment is the number of fire calls he has responded to. Since 1989, there were a total of 4,297 fire calls and Lee made 3,915, or more than 90 percent of the calls.

Serving the residents of Pillager—a small city of 482, according to an estimate in 2016 by the U.S. Census Bureau, located 14 miles west of Brainerd/Baxter—is something Lee holds dear. Lee has lived in Pillager all his life, graduating from Pillager High School in 1974.

Lee joined the fire department after high school to give it a try. He said he had the time and back then there were no qualifications to be a firefighter or any training, like there is now.

Now firefighters have to make a percentage of the calls, conduct 40 hours of training and pass a physical test.

"It took awhile to really sink in," Lee said on when he realized his passion for firefighting. "When it clicked I said, 'I could make a career out of it.'"

Outside of firefighting, Lee owned the hardware store in town, formerly the Gambles Store and then he changed its name to Lee's Hardware. He then went to work for Hengel Construction and left 25 years ago when he decided to help his wife run a day care business, which also made him available to go on more fire calls.

Lee said his proudest accomplishments for the fire department were making sure all the equipment and training are up-to-date and starting a second fire station in Fairview Township in 2001. Pillager Fire and Rescue covers 350 square miles in the cities of Pillager and East Gull Lake and the townships of Sylvan, Fairview, Home Brook, Rosing and half of May. The fire department took over East Gull Lake in 2015.

Lee said up to 75-80 percent of the calls are medicals.

Pillager has maintained an average of 23 firefighters in the fire department. Currently there are three women: Sandie Youngblom, Cindy Eastman and Trista Hawkinson.

Youngblom has been on the Pillager Fire Department for 19 years. She said Lee and Les Fundine, the fire chief before Lee, talked her into joining the department. Youngblom said she was dating a firefighter, Tom Youngblom—who she later married—and they were scheduled to go on a date, but there was a structure fire. Sandie Youngblom told Tom to go and she would wait, as she didn't think it would take long. It took three hours.

"I was always sitting at the fire department so Randy and Les said, 'Why don't you just join?' So I did," she said. "I was the first woman on the fire department in 1998.

"Randy is my second dad. He always encouraged me to go to all the different trainings, to do everything involved in firefighting. He wants everyone to be well rounded."

Youngblom always looked up to Lee for his guidance, his work ethic and dedication to the fire department. She said he always took pride in the fire department to provide the best service to the community to keep people safe and "he was amazing," she said.

"He set a high precedence and his shoes will be hard to fill, but we will try. ... Randy held us to a high standard in responding to calls and we want to keep the high standard going for us and the community."

Greg Ringler succeeded Lee as fire chief. Ringler has been with the fire department for 30 1/2 years and went on many calls with Lee.

"He's been here throughout my whole career (in firefighting)," Ringler said "He will be missed by the fire department. The amount of time he put in and all of his selfless sacrifices he made to make sure the fire department was serving the community is most remarkable.

"His example in leadership is the one thing that has shown through (his years on the fire department)."

Lee said his advice to people who want be a firefighter, is to make sure their spouse or significant other is OK with them joining.

"If you have a clash at home it won't work," Lee said. "Get their blessing and explain to them that if the pager goes off they have to go at any unrecognizable time."

Lee responded to a number of difficult calls over his firefighting career, including a call involving his daughter, Samantha. Eleven years ago, his daughter, who then was in her mid-20s, was involved in a motorcycle crash with her boyfriend. Lee was on a different call at the time and when he heard the 911 dispatcher report the seriousness of it, he went to the crash scene.

"When I got there the assistant fire chief came up to me and told my it was my daughter," Lee said, who worked on his daughter to help her. "Nobody can prepare you for that."

Lee's daughter was flown to North Memorial Medical Center in Robbinsdale and she spent two weeks there recovering.

Lee said the emergency call with his daughter changed the way he responds to crashes. He said he tries to not really look at the victim's face so he can do his job the best way he can.

Another difficult call for Lee was when a baby with sudden infant death syndrome was at his day care and stopped breathing. He tried to revive the baby through CPR, but he was unable to bring the baby back.

On the difficult calls, Lee said it helps to talk to his wife about what happened to get him through the emotional distress of the call. He said there are resources available to help firefighters deal with the serious calls when they need help.

The Pillager firefighters call themselves family and said they are there for each other. On the Pillager Area Fire & Rescue Facebook page, the firefighters stated:

"Randy we, as your firefighters, say thank you! Thank you for believing in us, teaching us and guiding us. Thank you for making Pillager Area Fire and Rescue what it is today. We will always be proud to have served with you!

"And, Kathy, we thank you. For the countless hours you have invested in this department as well. For the times Randy had to leave in the middle of dinner, unable to attend a birthday party or anniversary or woke you up in the middle of the night when his pager went off. Randy could not have done his job as chief as well as he did without you. He has told us that many times. Your dedication as a firefighter's wife is not overlooked and we thank you for your service as well."

Lee is not sure what his and Kathy's future plans are, but said once she is recovered fully they will decide what their next chapter of their life will be.