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If there was smoke in East Bethel during the last half century, the Williams family wasn't far behind.

Nine members of the Williams family -- both men and women -- have volunteered for the city's Fire Department since its founding in 1959. They balanced jobs, child rearing and family life to serve.

Add it all up and the Williams family has spent nearly 150 years fighting fires.

"The Williams family is what I call a fire dynasty," said East Bethel Fire Chief Mark DuCharme. "They are a long-serving family. There is not a lot of that in the state of Minnesota. That's what is even more remarkable."

The East Bethel City Council honored the family at a recent meeting. Volunteer firefighting may seem like a charming slice of nostalgia, but volunteers still do a majority of the firefighting in the state today. Of the 20,600 firefighters in Minnesota, 18,600 are either volunteer or paid on-call, receiving a nominal fee for each emergency.

At a recent family get-together, the Williamses discussed what has fueled their passion for fighting fires. Over beers, there's a lot of good-natured ribbing and recollections of fighting fires and weekend potlucks spent training at the fire station.

It all started in 1959, when brothers Howard and Ronald Williams signed on as charter members of the East Bethel Fire Department. East Bethel had just incorporated and was looking for a few good men.

The city had relied on neighboring departments until then, and it sometimes took 20 minutes for those outside fire crews to respond to a call in East Bethel, the Williams family said.

Younger brother Dale Williams joined at age 18 in 1962. He's the longest-serving family member, with 45 years under his belt.

"When I first started, we had a lot of grass fires and chimney fires, not as many medical calls," Dale recalls.

He said some neighbors were notorious for burning their garbage, which often flamed out of control. Response times were a bit slower back then, and volunteer firefighters often drove their own vehicles to the scene. The department's main truck for many years was a hand-me-down 1963 Chevy pumper with an open cab and no heat.

There have been very few deaths in his years with the department, but Dale said there were some moments that made him pause.

"We have to see some tough stuff over the years. Some car accidents ..." Dale recalls.

Dale rose to the level of chief, which at the time was voted on by department members. He retired from the department in July 2008. But the emergency scanner still crackles in his living room.

"I like to listen and see what calls are coming in," he said.

Howard's wife, Beverly, and Dale's wife, Jackie, joined the department in the 1970, blazing a trail for women firefighters. Jackie died of cancer in 1994.

Beverly remembers some of the men firefighters blew a lot of hot air when the women joined. "The women weren't very welcome back then," Beverly said.

Some male firefighters, concerned that the women weren't strong enough, said to the women, "Who is going to want to be your backup?" Beverly recalls.

But the women could respond to calls during the day while the men were at work. She remembers her first call, a garage fire. She, sister-in-law Jackie and a male firefighter responded. Nerves were tense.

"The first thing I was thinking was, 'How do I get water?' Everything you learn in training goes poof," Beverly said.

The women figured it out and firefighting became a family affair.

"Back in the day, we brought the kids and they stayed in the car while we'd fight the fires," Beverly said.

"I don't know what encouraged them," said Dale with a shrug. "It was something they wanted to do."

They missed a lot of meals

The men in the family said the women never bit their tongues, and Beverly could often be heard bellowing her opinion during department meetings. Beverly served 14 years before retiring in the 1980s. She was aiming for 15, but said the work was physically and emotional demanding.

"There's so many meals you miss and company you leave," she said.

Howard and Beverly's sons, Kevin, Jason and Richard, all served. Richard is the only remaining Williams on the department today. He has served 33 years. He said he never had any qualms about serving with family.

"At least you knew who you were going in with," Richard said.

Dale's son, Todd, joined the department at age 18 and learned the ropes.

"The job excited me. I enjoyed helping people and I saw my dad do it," Todd said.

When Todd and his wife moved to Coon Rapids, he volunteered for that fire department. He became a professional firefighter in 2001 and now is Coon Rapids' fire marshal.

It hasn't been all heroics. Playing with a lighter in a closet as a boy, Todd started his house on fire. Heavy smoke damage forced the family to move out for weeks. Todd said he often shares the story of his childhood mishap when speaking to children about fire prevention.

Community members describe the Williams family as hardworking and dedicated. No one realized the breadth of their service until someone at City Hall added it up for the award.

"At the time you don't think about it. They were just part of the department, good firefighters and good members," said Don Anderson, who served as a volunteer firefighter and as fire chief.

"They were always a fun family to be with. I think they are all a hardworking bunch. Fire departments have changed over the years. ... It's hard to keep members involved. It takes so much time away from the family. That's a credit to the ones who did stay on as long as they did."

Shannon Prather • 612-673-4804