Someone lit a fire under Gordy Vadnais at a young age, and that fire was never extinguished.
The long-time fire chief of the White Bear Lake Area Volunteer Fire Department and advocate for firefighters and their education died Sunday at age 76 after a 25-year battle with heart disease.
Vadnais may be best remembered for his tireless contributions to firefighting, but friends and family say he had accomplishments in every area of his life.
"He was an incredible leader, not just in fire service but in the Vadnais family and family business," said his nephew, Tim Vadnais, White Bear Lake's current fire chief.
He graduated from White Bear High Lake School High School in 1947. Poised to start college on a scholarship, he opted to help his father in the family business, White Bear Oil, because two older brothers were in the military.
"He could have attended college," said his wife of 37 years, Roberta, "but down the road, he didn't really need to. He was very successful without it."
He would later become president of the family oil-distributing firm and launch a large-truck repair service and an International Harvester dealership.
But firefighting was his real professional passion. He joined the White Bear Lake volunteer fire department in 1953 and didn't leave until 1988, when he retired as the department's first full-time paid chief.
His family became accustomed to the erratic service of a fire volunteer and to vacations shortened by duties of a chief.
"I was very proud of him," Roberta said, noting her husband inspired countless fire recruits, including a brother-in-law, two nephews and stepson Rick Schwalbach.
Vadnais pushed for innovations not only in the fire department but also in the city. He fought for a second water tower in White Bear Lake and insisted that new housing developments have fire hydrants, improvements that pay off today through the best insurance rating awarded to cities with volunteer departments.
At the state level, Vadnais campaigned for firefighter education among smaller departments when he was president of the State Fire Chiefs Association.
Perhaps his greatest contribution came through his own battle with heart disease. In the 1970s, ambulance crews usually handled emergency trips to hospitals. A conversation with his cardiologist, Dr. Brian Campion at Regions Hospital in St. Paul, inspired Vadnais to form one of the first volunteer corps of paramedics in the country.
No one thought he could pull it off, his nephew said, but within a few years of its launch in 1979, the program was winning national awards.
"A patient's chance of survival back then was pretty slim," Tim Vadnais said. "Think of the number of lives saved because of this man's vision."
Those who knew him say Gordy Vadnais accomplished what he did through a personality that was forceful and gregarious to a fault. A fellow patient in the Regions Hospital cardiac rehab department once asked if Vadnais was running for governor, he talked to so many people.
Vadnais was a volunteer for the Chamber of Commerce, the Lion's Club, his church and local food shelves.
"Everybody knew him," said friend Lin Lindbeck, who served as an assistant fire chief under Vadnais. "He lived here all his life; he ran a business here. We're just a small town, still, but back then, we were really small, and he was really well known."
Vadnais is survived by his wife, Roberta; daughter Laurie Vadnais of Mahtomedi; stepchildren Rick Schwalbach of White Bear Lake, Debra Waag of Long Lake and Connie Schwinn of Forest Lake; nine grandchildren, two great-grandchildren, five siblings and numerous nieces and nephews.
Visitation will be from 4 to 8 p.m. Tuesday at St. Mary of the Lake Catholic Church in White Bear Lake and before the Mass of Christian Burial, 10:30 a.m. Wednesday at the church. Memorials may be made in his name to the White Bear Fire Department.
Mary Bauer can be reached at 651-228-5311.
Distributed by the Associated Press