A link to Cook County’s rural past and its history of volunteer firefighting died April 27. Bernhardt “Bernie” Schmidt was 89.
As a youth, Schmidt was a fourth generation Northbrook-area farmer who grew up to be a telephone lineman and a 46-year firefighter in that village.
He signed on as a volunteer firefighter in 1961. He was promoted to lieutenant in 1968, when he took over leadership of the volunteers for the next three years, as the village shifted to a career department. He then became a principal leader in the paid-on-call branch of the department.
According to the village of Northbrook, Schmidt worked thousands of fire calls, including a notable one that largely destroyed the Dunbrook shopping center.
Northbrook Deputy Chief Ron Schinleber, now retired, was there with Schmidt on that bitterly cold day in 1979, when hoses froze to Dundee Road. Another fire Schmidt worked, the Strike and Spare bowling alley fire in 1966, was before Schinleber’s time, but he knows about it.
The heat was fantastic and terrifying because, he said, there was flame-feeding airspace below the 50 lanes at the Northbrook bowling alley, and thick flammable varnish on top.
He said Schmidt told him about Northbrook’s spectacular McGuinn Farms stable fire in 1973. “He talked about the horses running wild out of the barn. One jumped up on a sheriff’s car and kicked the windows out. As fast as they could lay hose, that’s how fast the fire was advancing,” Schinleber said.
Schmidt retired as a POC Captain in 2007, with Northbrook still boasting one of the largest POC staffs in the state. That status continues today.
Before he turned in his boots, he was the last remaining working firefighter left from the days of the volunteers. As he was retiring, he was named the grand marshal of the village’s July 4 parade.
Jim Hoover, a retired Northbrook district chief, started a 35-year fire career as a Northbrook POC in late 1970. “In those days, the regular department would go home at 5 o’clock, and the POC would go on from 5:01 until 7 a.m.,” he said.
He remembered the phone ringing during an air pack drill in the old fire station at Walters Avenue and First Street.
After it was answered, “Bernie asked, ‘Do you know what that is?’” and answered his own question. “That’s your neighbor calling for help. And don’t you forget that it’s you that’s going to help him.
“He said our job was to serve and be friendly to the public and not give too much away,” avoiding disturbing the privacy of victims of fire and disaster.
Even in 1970, the new firefighters were relatively far removed from the area’s rural roots, and liked to hear, Hoover said, tales of farm life along what would became Sunset Ridge Road.
“The roads in the wintertime were full of snow but they didn’t do anything about that,” Schmidt told the Northbrook Voices oral history project of the Northbrook Historical Society and village public library eight years ago.
“The mailman would come down the road in his Model T with those little bitty narrow tires, and when he couldn’t go any farther, he would put everybody’s mail in a sack and hang it from a tree or a stump or whatever he could find, and he’d leave. Have to go hunt your mail. Happened quite often,” he said.
“You could stand on a big hay wagon in the barn … when the leaves were gone and see all the way down to downtown Northfield,” he added.
He said that as a boy, “We used to go hunting a lot (and) my dad would make us … take our first limit … to a man who lived on the corner where Voltz Road would dead end at Sunset. He was a soldier in the infantry in the First World War, and he got blinded by mustard gas.”
Every other year, he said, his dad would give the man’s family a calf, which they would raise for meat.
The WWI vet “lived in a house that was a real log cabin. Back in the days when the building was first built, my dad told me (earlier residents) used to take their belongings and go down in this dry cellar and put a big beam across the door so that the Indians, when they would travel through, wouldn’t take what you had.”
He said his dad lost an arm to a hay baler at the age of 14. But he could still play center field. He would catch the ball in a glove on his good hand, toss the mitt and ball up, catch the ball, and throw it on a line to home plate, “like a shot.”
Schmidt was using the same baler when he was a kid, he said.
He may have been as tough-minded as his father. Susan Schinleber, the deputy chief’s wife, is the author of the 2002 history, “A Breed Apart: The First 100 Years of the Northbrook Fire Department.” She said, “I do know that he taught many of the guys to drive a rig.
“His teaching method was to sit next to the guy with a helmet. If he thought he wasn’t backing up fast enough, he’d hit him with the helmet. It was a big encouragement to learn how to drive those things.”
Despite that, “The guys were all devoted to him and he was to them.”
Schmidt was buried May 6 in Glenview, steps from Immanuel Lutheran Church, where he was baptized more than eight decades ago. Among his survivors are his wife Jean and daughters Pamela Marr and Lisa Robinson.