Paying respect to one of their own
They came Saturday afternoon from several counties: firefighters, first responders, EMTs and law enforcement personnel from cities and counties, joining the family of Steven Hlinsky and his many friends.
Uniformed personnel packed into Alexandria Covenant Church, 11 full rows of people who, day in and day out, serve their communities selflessly, helping out when people are most in need.
On this windswept spring day, they were there by the dozens to show their support for their colleagues and pay their respects to a man many of them had come to know through the years. Hlinsky, known to all by his nickname “Beaver,” was being laid to rest.
The man who had been an integral part of the Forada Fire Department for so long – he was a member for 28 of his 46 years – died May 13 at his son’s home, eight days after being found bleeding and unconscious outside the Muddy Boot Bar & Grill in Forada.
And so they came from all over, men and women in uniform on a May weekend, to say a final goodbye to their friend and associate.
After the service, the members of the Forada department formed two lines out the front door of the church, leading to the hearse, as the casket was carried out. Towering over the front door, near the church’s steeple, was the ladder from the Alexandria department’s aerial truck, flying an American flag as another symbol of respect.
About an hour later, a huge procession began, crossing Highway 29, snaking east on 34th Avenue, eventually reaching Highway 23, going under the freeway bridge and taking a right turn onto Meades Addition Drive to the Hudson Cemetery. The procession was led by a Douglas County Sheriff’s car, followed by the most impressive collection of fire trucks imaginable.
This time they were coming single-file, one after another after another. The trucks bore the names of area towns: Miltona, Garfield, Starbuck, Carlos, Kensington and Leaf Valley. There was Villard, Brandon, Glenwood and Lowry. Cyrus, Brooten, Hoffman, Parkers Prairie and Osakis. And at least three trucks from Alexandria and a minimum of seven from Forada.
Thirty fire trucks in all, from 17 departments. The Forada department has 30 volunteer members and spans 26 square miles, but on this day, the procession of fire trucks filled with firefighters spanned as far as the eye could see. Many had gotten to know Hlinsky, whether it was on joint calls, in the softball and golf outings departments used to have or when he was secretary of the Douglas Fire Chiefs Association.
It all left Forada Fire Chief Bob Steidl speechless.
“There’s no words to describe it,” he said following the graveside service. Enormous and outstanding were two words he used to sum up what it was like to see such support from so many fire services. “It was Forada nice. Minnesota nice,” he said.
Alexandria Fire Chief Jeff Karrow also searched for words to describe what was one of the most memorable funerals he has attended.
“I thought the pastor’s message was spot on,” Karrow said of Covenant’s Trinity Opp, before paraphrasing part of the message. “The minister had this fire nozzle and a fire hose and said we‘re all here on earth like a mist, with a definite starting time and a definite end. But your eternal life is never ending. That’s what this hose represents. It keeps going on and on and on, and it leads to the cross.”
Then it was time for the Forada Fire Department to again form a line, each member hugging Hlinsky’s family members and laying a rose on top of the casket. The chief was last, and he turned and rapped the casket a couple of times.
Steidl and first assistant chief Stephen Van Luik presented Hlinsky’s mother, Dorothy, and his two children, Dominic and Abby, with his helmet, name tags and badges. That was all the more meaningful considering Abby is a first responder and Dominic is a member of the Forada Fire Department.
No one is liable to forget any of this, especially when a message from Douglas County dispatch came through loud and clear. It was a last call paging Forada 1430.
“1430 was Beaver’s number. They did that twice,” Karrow said. The dispatcher saluted Hlinsky’s 28 years of dedicated service, and said his legacy will live on. “We’ve got it from here, Beaver.”
Alexandria battalion chief Bill Thoennes timed a call to dispatch after a moment of silence, and firefighters who stayed behind in their trucks let loose with a short stream, maybe 10 or so seconds, of lights and sirens and fire horns.
It’s a safe bet there wasn’t a dry eye to be found. It’s also the second time in two days that Karrow had gone through this. On Friday, it was for Mickey Quist, who served on the Alexandria department from 1960 to 1980.
“There’s always emotion attached to it, on different levels. Yesterday, I had tears in my eyes for Mickey. His grandson gave words of remembrance that were awe-inspiring,” Karrow said.
As a further show of support, the Alexandria and Villard fire departments volunteered to cover Forada’s fire and rescue calls Friday and Saturday so its members could attend Hlinsky’s visitation and funeral.
The last couple of weeks had taken their toll on the members of the Forada department, some of whom responded to that early-morning 911 call for a man who other nights would have been making the call along with them. Others responded to the 911 call for Hlinsky on May 13.
Then there was Forada’s chief, who had known Hlinsky since they were both in school at Alexandria’s Jefferson High School. Steidl, who had been on the other side of days like this when he was paying respects in recent years to members of departments in Evansville, Kensington and other towns, was doing it this time for his friend, who had welcomed him into the department 17 or 18 years ago.
“He was my go-to guy,” Steidl said. “He was the only one to call me Bobby.”
Video contributed by Karin Anderson, Kensington Fire Department and Lakes Area Crisis Response Team