Ken Kuchera was a part-time Farmington firefighter for 38 years, 20 of them as chief.
Few volunteers have spent more years fighting fires, said Tom Brace, executive director of the Minnesota State Fire Chiefs Association. "He was highly respected and regarded in his community and by his peers," Brace said.
He died June 6 from colon cancer in Northfield. He was 63. Kuchera, whose full-time job was night operations manager at the Empire Wastewater Treatment Plant, also enjoyed snowmobiling, year-round fishing on Lake Mille Lacs, bird watching and spending time with his grandchildren, said his wife, Elizabeth Kuchera. She said he survived long enough to hold his newest granddaughter, who was born shortly before his death.
He was a witty, detail-oriented man who stayed calm in trying situations, said Fire Chief Tim Pietsch, a fishing buddy and friend of 30 years. One example of Kuchera's cool came in a City Council meeting, when an official verbally attacked him. Pietsch asked Kuchera afterward why he didn't respond in kind. "He said 'I'd love to unload on him but then I lose my credibility,'" Pietsch recalled. "It was a life lesson to me."
Pietsch said Kuchera helped plan the city's two fire stations and helped institute new policies such as banning alcohol use in the department in the 1990s, not a popular move with all firefighters. "Ken figured it was time to get it out," Pietsch said. "Some guys said when we are done with a fire call, we want to have a beer." But Kuchera stood firm.
"I never saw Ken lose his cool," Pietsch said. "He usually used his wit or humor. He had an infectious laugh ... He was really good at talking to people and at politics in general."
Kuchera, who had been elected by firefighters, also supported moving to an appointed chief in 2006. He stepped aside and Pietsch was selected by a panel of three city department heads and two firefighters. Kuchera was a good listener and continued to mentor the new chief.
"Many times I'd call him up and ask questions, whether it was budgeting or discipline. He was always there to help. He always had an answer."
His passing could be the end of a Kuchera firefighting tradition started by his grandfather. His father, Eugene (Babe) Kuchera, served 34 years, including five as chief, and also was Farmington's mayor. Ken could be the last Kuchera with the department, Pietsch said, although Kuchera has a brother-in-law, Dan Thelen, who is a firefighter.
Elizabeth Kuchera said her busy husband, also a trained first responder for medical calls, got by on about three hours of sleep a day. He usually stopped at the fire department on the way home from his night-shift job. Then, "If the yard was presentable he'd sleep, unless there was a fire or rescue call. Then he was out the door in two minutes."
Besides his wife, Kuchera is survived by his two daughters, Theresa Warner of Northfield, and Melissa Biebighauser of Superior, Wis.; step-children Rene Rasmussen of Eagan and Roger Rasmussen Jr. and Chris Rasmussen, both of Apple Valley; sisters Judy Pilger, Nancy Asher and Mary Jo Thelen, all of Farmington; and five grandchildren and step-grandchildren.
Services have been held.