What started out as a way to help the community while soldiers were off fighting in World War II blossomed into a lifetime of service for Joe Pautler. A lifelong Union resident, Pautler, 91, recently was honored for 75 years of service to the Union Fire Department.
He was among a handful of high school students selected to help fight fires in the early ’40s. At that time, there was a calling system, or the teens responded when they heard sirens.
They rode bicycles from the high school to either the fire station or to the fire if it was nearby. At the time, the fire station was located near where city hall is now, at the northeast corner of Main and Locust streets.
Pautler would run a machine to get smoke out of the homes to help prevent smoke damage. At the time, volunteers carried furniture and valuables from heat and water to keep them from getting damaged and helped clean up water after the fire was extinguished.
Pautler’s father, Felix, also volunteered, but it was before Joe ever became a firefighter.
The day Pautler graduated from high school in 1944, he enlisted in the United States Navy for nearly three years.
He ran a warehouse full of parts and supplies for the Mediterranean fleet, primarily because he had some experience working at a variety store and soda shop run by his parents called Pautler’s Store.
Joe’s mother’s family, the Kramolowskys, had a tavern on the corner of Main and Oak streets in Union. When Prohibition was enacted, Mr. Anton Kramolowsky helped his daughter’s husband (Joe’s dad, Felix Pautler) turn Kramolowsky’s tavern into a popular variety store for penny candy, soda and other items.
After serving in the Navy, Pautler recalled going to Jess Rieskamp’s restaurant, located near South Oak and Highway 50, for coffee — only he didn’t like coffee.
He had his sights set on a certain waitress, Miss Dolores Meyer, who became Mrs. Pautler Dec. 27, 1947.
The couple had five children: Mike, Kathy, Jim, Pat and Julie; eight grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
The couple were married for 64 years before Dolores passed away in 2012.
Pautler made a living as a carpenter. He built many homes in Union, living in one until the next was complete, then selling the last. The houses are located mainly on State Street, including the apartments near Independence.
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.
He also worked for the Union School District as the maintenance supervisor for 23 years.
Pautler would sometimes use his own flooring equipment to clean and scrub floors for people who had been affected by disasters.
As a volunteer department, firefighters had to raise their own funds, which they did primarily through summer picnics.
Pautler set up popcorn, snow cone and cotton candy machines to help raise money. They also set up booths at the Fair throughout the years.
Over the years, Pautler recalls two of the worst fires he helped fight.
The first was a grass fire. He and a partner began the attack, but “all at once, the wind blew hard and we were in the middle of the fire,” Pautler said.
The team drove through the fire, but not before Pautler burned his ears.
Another time, he recalled a fire at the bulk plant, the worst fire he remembers fighting.
According to records, investigators suspect that 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 before both burst into flames.
“We were trying to cool the gas tanks so they wouldn’t blow,” Pautler said.
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 pressure would burn out of those safety valves,” Pautler said, adding that the valves were “the things that saved us.”
Once the explosion occurred, gasoline ran into the gutter and burned all the way to the nearby creek, he said.
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.
The biggest change over his seven decades with the department, Pautler said, is the addition of new equipment not available to the earlier crews.
Pautler continues to ride in parades and volunteers to display antique equipment at history fairs and other activities.
He also helps judge the annual fire prevention poster contest.
In 2016, Pautler was one of 34 veterans in the state of Missouri to receive the Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder Veterans Service Award.
He also served 10 years with the Union Ambulance Volunteer Service as an EMT, and has been active with the Knights of Columbus, the American Legion, the County Seat Senior Center Support Committee, and he routinely helps neighbors with home maintenance and handyman repairs.
Pautler has been and is currently on the Board of Appeals for Franklin County Building Department for over six years.