Cpt. John Billwiller has retired his post at Grand Forks Fire/Rescue after 40 years at the department.
His resumé speaks to his passion for service more than his words ever could.
“Nomenclature is everything,” he told The Gazette, pointing to a printed “cheat sheet” detailing a lifetime of volunteerism.
His point wasn’t lost on this reporter, who stumbled repeatedly over the various iterations of Grand Forks fire departments going back to September 1980, when Billwiller signed up as a trainee. Rural Grand Forks had it’s own fire department until 2006, when Billwiller helped negotiate the integration of the two departments.
Nomenclature — the science of naming things — may be everything, but how does one label a man like Billwiller, who prefers not to talk about himself?
The man is a terrible self-promoter, for one.
“The people got older and the equipment got newer,” he said of his career at rural Grand Forks’ George Evans Hall (now Hall 351).
“I was a firefighter after completing my training. Your pager went off, you went to the hall, you got your gear on and you got in the truck.
Then I became a lieutenant. If no other officer was in the truck, I was in charge.
Then they appointed me captain. Until a superior officer arrived, I was in command of the fire scene.”
He said he was lucky never to have gone out on calls where people had died. And he kept himself safe, too.
“Nothing broken. No burns. No accidents with the firetruck.”
Billwiller was more talkative when it came to his retirement, but even then he was terse.
“An emotional subject” was how he summed up it up.
“Do I regret leaving?” he asked himself. “Yes.”
“I would’ve stayed if my body would let me,” he insisted.
“It’s been part of my life for over 40 years – in other words, over half my life.”
But at 74, Billwiller is beginning to slow down.
He runs a small business from his home on the North Fork and his wife is happy to have him there.
“Absolutely,” he said. “She doesn’t have to worry” now that he’s stepped away from active duty.
“John’s years of service haven’t gone without sacrifice,” said Grand Forks’ fire chief George Seigler.
“In that time, he’s missed many a meal with his family and he’s spent a lot of time away from home.”
Billwiller was given a standing ovation at his last meeting at Grand Forks Fire and Rescue’s 2nd St. Hall Wednesday evening, Oct. 7.
Even then, Chief Seigler said Billwiller kept his speech short.
Billwiller has been asked to stay on at the department’s equipment acquisition committee, where he will get older and the equipment will get newer.