Bob Reiss, from the Re-Echo, Fall 2002
Omar McGary was St. Louis Park’s third Fire Chief. He held that position from 1969 until he retired in 1979. During his tenure, the Fire Department changed from a group of men sitting around playing cards to an organization of professionals, dedicated to the fire safety of St. Louis Park.
The first St. Louis Park Fire Department was formed in 1916 by 14 volunteers, but it was not until 1930 that the Village purchased the first pumper. Joe Williams was appointed Chief, and also Superintendent of the Water Department. The Fire Department operated out of a former tavern located at 36th and Brunswick (across the street from what is now Jorvig Park). This building could house only one truck, and at various times was also the Police Station and Village Clerk’s Office. In 1938, a new fire and police station was built on what became the Minnesota Rubber parking lot on 37th between Alabama and Wooddale. [now Village in the Park]
As the population of St. Louis Park increased, the Fire Department grew and the volunteers were replaced by paid firemen. When the Home Rule Charter was adopted in 1955, there were 16 paid firemen. A new north side station was built on Louisiana Avenue in 1963. In 1966, a new south side station was built at the present location on Wooddale Avenue to replace the one on 37th Street.
After graduating from St. Louis Park High School in 1933, Omar McGary spent most of his early years working at Jennings Tavern. Without previous experience, he joined the Fire Department in 1946 and was added to the paid group of firemen in 1948.
In 1955, Pete Williams, Joe’s son, succeeded Joe as Chief of the Department. When Pete retired in 1969, Omar McGary was professionally qualified to take over as Chief. He was appointed Acting Chief and in 1979 he officially became the third Chief of the Department.
Chief McGary was very dedicated. He attended seminars around the country, learning how other fire departments were run. He brought these ideas back to St. Louis Park and used them to improve his department. He fought hard for budget money for new equipment and training. His fire department gained national recognition and he received many calls about his systems and opinions.
Safety became an important issue. On October 8, 1971, two of St. Louis Park’s firemen lost their lives fighting a fire at the Pizza House at 4532 Excelsior Blvd. They thought the fire was under control and safe enough to enter the building. They were unaware that there was a false ceiling and it collapsed on the two men. So this would not happen again, Chief McGary initiated a rigid inspection system. Firefighters no longer sat around the fire station waiting for a fire. They now spend their time on drills, cleaning their equipment or on building inspections. Every business or commercial building in St. Louis Park was inspected on a periodic basis, not only for safety hazards but also for construction details.
Chief McGary developed a system that was adopted by many other departments around the country and eventually patented by one of them. A card file with all the pertinent details if every commercial building in St. Louis Park was kept in the cab of the fire trucks and could be studied on the way to a fire. When they got to the fire, the firefighters were aware of construction details, hydrant locations, and other information.
And Chief McGary was tough. Many of the locomotives passing through St. Louis Park had faulty spark arrestors that caused fires. The railroads ignored the Chief’s requests to correct the problems. He even tried to charge them for putting out the fires. Finally, he had a train stopped and would not let it pass through the Park until the spark arrestors were repaired. The Chief was no longer ignored.
On May 11, 1977, the St. Louis Park Fire Department fought the worst fire in the City’s history. The two Burdick [Belco] Company elevators at Highway 7 and Glenhurst Avenue burned to the ground. Police and firemen from the entire metropolitan area assisted in the containment. The entire area was evacuated and a command post established. The caliber and training of the professionals working under Chief McGary was tested and proved highly effective.
Today, the St. Louis Park Fire Department consists of 24 professional full time fire fighters. In addition, there are 23 paid-on-call trained fire fighters. Luke Stemmer is the seventh Chief and the fourth since Chief McGary retired. After a nationwide search for each of these four men, three were found in the St. Louls Park Fire Department and promoted. A credit to the personnel, training, and reputation begun by Chief McGary.