CADILLAC — At the age of 26, Keith Ball decided to try something new.
He was new to the Cadillac area and Haring Township. The year was 1976. As a new resident, he saw the fire department was also just getting started and thought he would give it a try. With no expectations, he joined the Haring Township Fire Department and 45 years later he retired on the same date he started on in 1976 — July 1.
At 71, Ball said his decision to retire wasn’t based on him not wanting to continue but rather his ability to do all the things he used to do.
“As I have gotten older, the job has gotten harder. If I can’t do the job, I don’t want to be there,” he said. “Even though being an officer you don’t have to do everything, you still have to do things and it has just gotten harder.”
Although he couldn’t explain what compelled him to join the department back in 1976, Ball said it didn’t take long for him to realize he enjoyed it. He said he enjoyed being with his fellow firefighters. He enjoyed helping people. He also enjoyed fighting the fires.
Ball said it may sound weird, but he liked going into fires. Maybe it was the adrenaline rush or maybe it was the way he looked at fires as an enemy who wasn’t going to get the best of him. Whatever it was, Ball said he wanted to save as much as he could whether it was life or property.
When it came to the other parts of his job as a firefighter, department captain and eventually the assistant fire chief, Ball said he like doing it all. Being in a small rural department in Northern Michigan didn’t always lend itself to being able to focus on one aspect of firefighting.
Sometimes you don’t have the luxury of having extra firemen or engineers,” he said. “Over the years, you just learn how to do things. As you go on, you hopefully get better at it.”
Haring Township Fire Chief Duane Alworden said it will be hard to replace Ball and his experience. Although he has been with the department for 45 years, Alworden said he was able to adapt to the changes and, in particular, all the technological advancements with little trouble.
As someone who sometimes struggles with those types of changes himself, Alworden said that was what made Ball such a good firefighter — he could adapt to any situation.
“The knowledge he has on all the fires he fought for 45 years is irreplaceable,” Alworden said. “He has held positions of a fireman, captain and assistant fire chief. He also was an instructor for the state and a fire investigator for the county through a task force that was put together. He wore many different hats.”
Not only did Ball have that institutional knowledge, but Alworden said he also was as dependable as they come. Whether if it was a call for service or a meeting, Ball was there, Alworden said. He also said he didn’t have to worry about Ball while on the scene of a fire because he had more years of service than he does.
What it all comes to is Ball leaving is a huge loss and hole to fill within the department, but also an opportunity for the next generation to step up, according to Alworden.
“We have to get the younger generation in. That was one of Keith’s biggest things was turning things over to the younger generation,” Alworden said.
As for the transition, Ball admitted it was tough. It has been hard because he enjoyed working with his fellow firefighters. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the department becomes like family and Ball said that is probably the thing he will miss the most. Although his last day was June 30, Ball said he has been back to have coffee with the guys to see what is going on and to keep his “hands in a little bit.”
Although he admits things have changed drastically from he started in 1976, some things haven’t. A fire is still a fire and a firefighter’s job is to put it out.
“It’s different than it was in 1976, but fire is fire. It doesn’t know the year. It doesn’t know if you are a volunteer, paid on-call or a full-on firefighter,” he said. “It doesn’t know if you have been there for five minutes or 45 years. You have to know the difference. I never thought I would be there for 45 years. I thought I would try it. I was 26 at the time. I thought 10 or 20 years would be good, but here we are 45 years later.”
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