Joe Pautler said a lot has changed since he joined the Union Fire Department 70 years ago.
In particular, the safety equipment is much different today than it was in 1942.
“It was a completely different fire department back then,” he said. “There is all kinds of safety equipment now. I didn’t even have good boots back then.”
Pautler, 87, was born and raised in Union. He graduated from Union High School.
He joined the U.S. Navy immediately after graduating.
“The day I graduated I went into the service.” Pautler said. “No break at all.”
Pautler served nearly two years in the Navy. He stated that he spent the majority of his time as a storekeeper at a naval base in Palermo, Sicily.
After he returned to Union, Pautler began school at Southeast Missouri State University, Cape Girardeau. He was there just for a couple of semesters before he returned to Union where he worked as a carpenter.
He and his wife Delores were married in 1947 and the couple had five children.
The Pautlers were married 65 years before she passed away in May 2012.
Pautler has eight grandchildren and his first great-grandchild is on the way this spring, he said.
While working as a carpenter, Pautler attended night classes at St. Louis University.
He received a degree in accounting, but he never worked as an accountant.
“I don’t even do my own taxes,” he jokes.
His experience as a carpenter resulted in a career for the Union R-XI School District for 23 years as maintenance supervisor. He eventually retired from the district.
Pautler’s career as a local volunteer firefighter began while he was still a student at Union High School in January 1943. At the time, many area men were serving their country in World War II.
“They let us out of school to go to fires,” he said. “A lot of firemen were in the service.”
At the time, the Union Fire Protection District had not been established, and wouldn’t be for another 40 years.
The fire station and meeting room were located on the Franklin County courthouse square in downtown Union at the northeast corner of Main and Locust streets.
Today, the Union Fire Protection District is a fully equipped, taxpayer-supported agency with a full fleet of trucks designed to handle numerous emergency situations.
“The worst fire I went to was when the bulk plants caught fire,” he said.
Investigators suspect a cigarette started a grass fire under a railcar near the Franklin County oil plant off Washington Avenue Nov. 16, 1949. The fire spread to the bulk plant and then the Union Oil plant both burst into flames.
The fire reached the Standard Oil bulk plant where Union volunteer firefighters doused the oil tanks with water.
The fire started to burn through the safety valves, However, the valves were not completely destroyed.
“The safety valves are what saved us,” he said.
Pautler added that following the fire, volunteer firefighters received better equipment.
“The helmets way back then were just a piece of tin,” he remembers.
During his firefighting career, Pautler held several offices with the Union Fire Department including treasurer, rescue lieutenant, second assistant chief and training captain.
He also served as the first fire marshal after the Union Fire Protection District was established in 1973. Pautler served as fire marshal for four years, until 1977, noting that although building and fire codes have changed over the years, the responsibilities are essentially the same.
Pautler also served for five years with the Union ambulance when it first begin.
In 2012, Pautler killed his first deer as a bow hunter.
He has hunted with a gun for years but his doctor told him not to climb into deer stands. Now he stays closer to the ground and uses a bow and arrow.
Pautler also visits the County Seat Senior Center once every week for a meal.
He also helps friend and longtime firefighter Jerry Borgmann hang garage doors.
“I’ve gotta have something to keep busy,” he said.
“The doctor says do whatever I’ve been doing because I’m doing great,” he added.