Gary Lange retires after 45 years on Ludington Fire Department.

January 9, 2017
Gary Lange

Gary Lange

Gary Lange retires after 45 years on Ludington Fire Department.

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Photo and story copyrighted 2017, Media Group 31 LLC

By Rob Alway, Editor-in-Chief.

LUDINGTON — Gary Lange has served on the Ludington Fire Department longer than many of the department’s members have been alive. On Dec. 31, 2016, the fire captain hung up his turnout gear for the last time, retiring after 45 years of service. Gary joined the department in May 1971, carrying on a family tradition.

His uncle, Art Lange, had served many years as fire chief. His father, Herman, served as assistant chief. His brother, Jimmy, was also a firefighter. In fact, his uncle wouldn’t let him join the department because there were too many Langes.

“He was worried that if there was a catastrophe that killed or hurt one of us, how would the department continue to function.”

Gary eventually got on, though.

“I was just following tradition,” he says. “I served in the military for three years, I was stationed in Germany. I fulfilled my duty and came back. That just wasn’t enough. There was a magnetism that pulled me into it. It just gets in your blood.”

Gary served a time with the Ludington Police Department reserves but it wasn’t quite the same as fighting fires. He started helping at fires and then was eventually voted on.

“I couldn’t imagine living any other way than being on a fire department,” he says. “Every body has got to give something back to the community and you just can’t be with a better bunch of guys than the fire department. It’s a brotherhood that extends beyond your own town. I’ve visited fire stations all over Michigan, all over the country and they always welcome in a fellow firefighter.”

At 78-years-old, Gary had thought about waiting two more years before retiring. But, he says he knows it’s time. He says it’s more difficult to perform many of the physical activities firefighting requires; he believes that firefighters, including officers, should be able to perform all the functions on a fire scene. He says he also wanted to make room for other firefighters to take on leadership roles on the department.

In his 45 years, Gary has seen some significant fires. He talks about the Ludington Lumber Fire in the 1970s on South Rath Avenue. “The smoke was so thick, we got past the Grand Hotel restaurant, and I had to get out and walk in front of the truck. I had to tap on the hood — one tap meant stop, two taps meant go. That was a hot fire.”

He recalls the Orgy’s Restaurant fire downtown in the 1980s and the Handy Things factory fire on the north side of town in the 1990s. But nothing compared to the tragic evening of Feb. 28, 1993 when nine children died at 208 N. James Street, seven of them under the age of 7.

“That was the worst fire. You just never forget fires like that. It sticks with you all your life.”

Gary’s role in the fire was to carry the bodies, wrapped up in blankets, from where they were found, to the upstairs door. “I then handed them to Larry Gaylord (who is now fire chief for Pere Marquette Township Fire Department) and Larry carried them down the stairs, with tears in his eyes. I never seen so many firefighters with tears in their eyes. I remember (Ludington Fire Chief) Mike McDonald at the bottom of the stairs just holding up his fingers every time another body was found. Each time he would wipe the tears out of his eyes.”

Gary says he and the other responders wouldn’t have mentally survived the aftermath of that fire if they hadn’t had each other. “We had grief counseling afterwards and we all sat in a circle and talked about our roles in the fire. It was tough.”

Firefighting in Mason County has changed since then. The fire departments are much better equipped and have much more training. He says he has mixed feelings about the amount of training that’s required by firefighters, especially in rural areas where the firefighters are either paid-per-call or volunteers.

“When we started, we had to take 66 hours of training. Then it went to 240 hours. Now, it seems like there is no end,” he says. The tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001 created the Homeland Security Act which required firefighters to go through even more training.

“I just don’t know how a guy can do it anymore. There so much time involved in training. Plus, many of the manufacturers don’t let firefighters leave work because their equipment must be manned an entire shift.”

Gary’s wife, Sandy, adds that she’s proud of her husband and the time he has devoted to serving the city.

“I liked saying my husband was a firefighter,” she says, adding that it wasn’t always easy and that firefighting meant Gary had to sacrifice many family activities.

“She was the wind beneath my wings,” he says. “Every time I would come home from a fire, I had a blanket and a cup of coffee waiting for me. I couldn’t have done it without her support.” 

Gary worked in manufacturing his entire adult life. He began his career at Atkinson’s, and worked as a maintenance supervisor there. When it closed, he moved over to Carrom Company, then Pandrol Jackson, and then finally Whitehall Industries, where he retired about 10 years ago.

He says he is excited to see the City of Ludington build a new fire station on Tinkham Avenue. “I had hoped to stay on to see the new station, but either way it’s a long time coming. The old station (located at the corner of Loomis and Robert streets) was an old warehouse. The guys pieced that thing together. The new station will be a great improvement.”

It’s only been a couple weeks since he retired, but Gary still listens to the fire department calls on his scanner. “I’m not sure what I’ll do when there’s the next big fire. That’s going to be tough. I’m going to miss those guys. They aren’t just firefighters, they are my brothers.”

Gary will be recognized tonight by Ludington City Council during its regular meeting at 6 p.m. at city hall, 400 S. Harrison St., when Mayor Kay Holman is expected to read a resolution of appreciation.