Firefighting is a family affair for Todd, Tucker, Neal and David Karo. (Courtesy Karo family)
Firefighting is a family affair for Todd, Tucker, Neal and David Karo. (Courtesy Karo family)
BROWNSVILLE — It’s a good thing Neal Karo took his mother’s advice one autumn day in 1959.

“There was a fire in town and she told me to ‘Go up town and help those firefighters,’” Karo recalls.

That was the start of Karo’s 60 years as a volunteer firefighter with the Brownsville Fire District.

Captain Karo — whose sons Todd and David and grandson Tucker, 20, have all followed in his footsteps — has no plans to hang up his gear any time soon, although he admits that at 79 he takes a more behind-the-scenes role.

Even when Karo was serving four years in the U.S. Air Force in Mississippi and eastern Oregon, he answered fire calls when he was home on leave. Then he spent years as a TV and appliance repairman, always finding time to be a firefighter.

“I’ve answered calls every year for 60 years,” said Karo, a member of Holy Trinity Mission in Brownsville and a Knight of Columbus. “I just like helping people. That’s what it is all about. Helping to make someone’s worst day a little better. I also like the camaraderie of being a firefighter.”

Things were a lot different six decades ago.

“We didn’t have much training and we certainly didn’t have any turnouts,” Karo said, referring to the suits and gear modern firefighters step into quickly when the alarm rings. “We got a helmet and an old coat. We had to buy our own gloves and boots.”

Fires have changed over the years, Karo said. Decades ago, farmers burned their straw, meaning daytime field fires were frequent. Now most field blazes are linked to faulty farm equipment. There were three hay baler fires this year.

Thinking back six decades, Karo recalled his second week as a firefighter. He and another volunteer were at the fire hall and other volunteers had responded to a blaze.

“They called back to the station and told us to bring another truck,” Karo said. “The other guy didn’t know how to drive it, but I did. But I didn’t know how to operate it. It was definitely training on-the-job.”

Karo has held every position except chief, though the post has been offered to him.

“We’ve had some good saves over the years,” Karo said. “The Corner Café fire was a big one. I always worried that if that block got started, we would lose the whole thing.”

Karo said it is becoming increasingly difficult to get volunteer firefighters. The district has 22 and could use twice that number, he said.

He has responded to fires big and small, but especially remembers the Snyder Mill fire west of Brownsville and the Wilcox Seed Mill blaze near Harrisburg, both of which lasted all night.

Karo said today’s firefighters are much better trained and equipped than when he started. Six decades ago, it was common to pick up someone walking along the street to help fight a fire.

Firefighting isn’t all work. Karo enjoys driving the district’s 1923 Model T in the annual Pioneer Picnic Parade. He has safely lit the town’s Independence Day fireworks since 1966.

Karo’s sons and grandson are volunteers and he’s mighty proud. But his family is proud of him as well.

Grandson Tucker Karo grew up around the fire hall.

“I remember Grandpa and Dad leaving for calls and wishing I could go with them, so when I was finally old enough to join I did,” Tucker said. “Grandpa has been a huge influence on my decision to pursue this as a career and also a massive wealth of knowledge.”

Anytime Tucker has a question, he calls his grandfather. “We will spend hours at the station going over equipment and procedures and he always has a story or two as examples,” Tucker explained. “He was a fireman before firemen where glorified and tells me every day that he keeps coming back because the community is in need.”

Tucker said that even when fire training meetings get loud, “everyone listens up when Grampa talks. There are no exceptions because they have such respect for him,” Tucker said. “He’s a man that I am working to become, but I don’t know if that is even possible.”

In addition to community service as a firefighter, the elder Karo has been active for decades at his church, in the Knights of Columbus and with the Pioneer Picnic Association, where he is a past president.

“I truly enjoy helping people,” Karo said. “I get satisfaction out of helping people when they are struggling.”

Used with permission.