In Search Of…A Fire Fighting Family

Prairie du Chien firefighter reaches a remarkable milestone

John Gillitzer is a life-long farmer by trade, but the 81-year-old is known to most in the Prairie du Chien community as the rock of their volunteer fire department.

John and nine other men were recruited when the department formed back in the 1960’s and being a firefighter just fit.

“You get more interested in it and get to know the guys better and it’s kind of like another family,” John said.

But what was “like another family” became “all in the family” when not one but two of John sons followed in dads footsteps.

“I knew they were looking for new members and thought ‘how hard can that be?” Russ Gillitzer said.  “Boy that was a real eye opener.”

Little brother Joe joined a few years after Russ. “I guess I was 18 and my dad was on, and my brother was on and I thought ‘I wanna be on.'”

For years they all worked together but in the early 90’s John Gillitzer was voted in as chief. Making him not just dad…but boss.

“He treats everyone the same. We get our butt chewed like everyone else. If you’ve got it coming you’ve got it coming,” Russ said.

Under Chief Gillitzer’s leadership, the department has flourished and his boys are quick to brag.

“He pushed to get the better equipment,” Joe said. “I remember when I started in ’82, we drove some real jalopies. You were kind of embarrassed to drive down the road, the sirens would barely work. And he went to the board and said we need to get better equipment for our safety and for the safety of the public.”

For five decades, if there was a fire call in the Prairie Du Chien community, most likely at least one Gillitzer would respond. They have a combined 120 plus years of service between them. It is a record and a role they are all so proud of.

“Somebody has to respond to take care of people,” Russ said. “We’ve missed birthday parties and Christmas gatherings. But if you get the page – you go. Sure it would be nice to just let someone else worry about it, but you gotta think of it that someday that might be me that needs help.”

Joe adds, “We had one call this winter and it was 25 below on a Friday night and you are lying in bed and are thinking, ‘do I really want to go?’ And you know you have to because there is somebody out there calling for your help.”

In 2014 John stepped down as Chief.

“It was tough to step down it really was. I thought a lot about it a long time. But it’s part of life I guess.”

A difficult decision made easier by the man that would replace him. Russ Gillitzer stepped into the role last year.

“Taking over as Chief, I’ve had guys ask me, ‘Is it as tough as you thought it would be?’ Way more. There’s way more responsibility and it really brings to light what he did,” Russ said.

“I’m very proud,” Joe said. “When I step into this firehouse and how it’s grown and the camaraderie and how people take it seriously. That’s all from him.”

At almost 82, John Gillitzer’s name is still on the official firefighter roster.

“There’s a lot of things that he can do, that he knows, that he can teach,” Russ said. “I don’t expect him to be the first guy in the gear with a backpack on but there’s a lot of things he can do and I’ll take that help any day. You gotta lean on the experience.”

For 50 years, he’s volunteered to go in where most people try to get out. A true hero in the every sense of the word.