Naperville, IL, Celebrates Fire Department's 150th Anniversary

June 16, 2024
Current and retired firefighters talk about the history of the Naperville Fire Department, including the transition to a paid agency.

This year, the Naperville Fire Department is turning 150.

From a small volunteer unit to one that now boasts 200-plus paid personnel, the department has seen generations filter through its ranks, watched a city change around it and left a footprint that far outpaces its age.

As Naperville Fire commemorates a century and a half of service, the Naperville Sun spoke with firefighters past and present for a look back at its legacy:

Michael Rechenmacher

Growing up, Michael Rechenmacher used to play with his dad’s boots.

He knew, since he was little, he had some shoes to fill with the Naperville Fire Department.

Rechnenmarker was a Naperville firefighter for 35 years. He served as a volunteer, paramedic, captain and eventually battalion chief. But he knew the department far before he had any titles. And the department knew his name long before that.

His dad, Lt. Richard Rechenmacher, was a volunteer firefighter in Naperville for 25 years. His involvement, Rechenmarker recalled of his dad, was really a product of chance — and instinct.

Richard Rechenmarker’s first year with the department was 1946. After serving in World War II, he had returned to Naperville and was living at the corner of 5th Avenue and Loomis Street. One day, while he was working on a car outside his house, he heard a big crash, Rechenmarker remembered from his dad’s stories. It was the sound of one train slamming into another: the deadly Naperville train wreck of 1946.

He ran down to survey the scene and started helping where he could. Amid the disaster, he was approached by the then-fire chief, who commended his quick response and asked if he’d ever do it again. So he did.

Watching his dad volunteer, Rechenmacher, now 75, always wanted to follow in his footsteps, he said. As soon as he was old enough, he joined as a volunteer himself.

For a while, it was a family affair, with him and his dad volunteering together. But then tragedy struck. On Dec. 7, 1970, his dad was one of three firefighters killed in the line of duty when their engine collided with a coal truck while en route to a house fire.

Still, Rechenmacher stayed.

“I thought, well, what am I going to do?” he said. “Quit and do nothing? My dad wouldn’t have liked that.”

Rechenmacher retired from the Naperville Fire Department in the early 2000s. He remembered his tenure in ranks, from being paid part time to running fire stations as a full-fledged employee. But he also made note of the smaller moments.

There were nights spent roughhousing at the fire station, maybe engaging in a pillow fight or two. Rechenmacher and his company cooked together. They were his brothers, he said.

“It was good. A lot of fun. There were tough (moments), too. I lost a good friend. My dad. But you just try to keep that out of your mind and remember the good.” He had “a lot of great times,” Rechenmacher added, smiling.

He was privy to a lot of change too.

Jim Collins

When Jim Collins, 73, became a Naperville firefighter in 1977, he was part of a small, but growing group of full-time personnel filling the department that for much of its history had relied primarily on volunteers like Rechenmacher’s dad.

Really, volunteerism is what Naperville Fire was founded on. Formally, the department dates back to 1874, when Naperville established its first volunteer fire company, according to Sun archives. But even before that, fires were still handled by volunteers, albeit through more informal “bucket brigades.”

It took 50 years after that initial company for Naperville to hire its first full-time firefighter. Volunteers, however, remained for decades after. Until 1960, when the city began to rapidly grow and city services had to follow. With more acreage and people to cover, using mostly volunteer firefighters became impractical so its paid on-call system was phased out.

Collins recalled watching the transition take shape firsthand.

“When I got (to the department), the volunteers were the ones that had most of the authority,” he said. “Then, as time went on, more and more full-timers were hired. … Then we kind of took over, and the volunteers were actually backup for us.”

Collins stayed with Naperville Fire for more than 28 years. By the time he retired, the department, like the city, was much bigger. But the vast change was bonding for him and the firefighters who managed it together, Collins said.

He remains friends with them today.

Alan Rohlfs

The people have stuck with Alan Rohlfs too.

From 1984 to 2002, he served as Naperville fire chief. As the town grew, so did the department. Under Rohlfs, the ranks went from 40 employees to 200 and three fire stations to eight, all while the city’s population tripled to nearly 150,000.

But remembering those 18 years, he spoke of his staff.

“I had some incredibly talented and committed people. Nine to five didn’t mean anything to them,” he said. “We worked weekends, spent a lot of time away from our families to keep up with the growth and … make the department grow the right way.”

Rohlfs, 84, was 42 years old when he started with the Naperville department. He took the job as chief after 20 years’ working as a firefighter in Hartford, Connecticut, where he was from.

His time with Naperville “were some of the most incredible 18 years of my life,” he said.

Even 22 years into retirement, Rohlfs still keeps tabs on his old department. He has the department radio on “all the time,” he said, just to be in the know.

“It’s something that’s in your blood, I guess.”

Though not directly involved anymore, Rohlfs said it’s been exciting to see new faces come in and carry on the torch.

“The department is still so important to me,” he said. “It’s something I care deeply about.”

Mark Puknaitis

From one chief to another, fierce pride is a familiar feeling.

Mark Puknaitis has been at the helm of the fire department for 16 years. His reflections echoed that of his predecessor.

“To me, this has been much, much more than a job,” he said. “Much more than a career. Even more than a calling. (Acting) as the fire chief for the Naperville Fire Department has been a bestowed honor.”

Puknaitis said he’s proud of how far the department has come over the past 150 years. And he hopes it continues to grow. Maybe not like it did in Rohlfs’ years, but in other ways.

“Let’s not be afraid of change,” he said.

To commemorate Naperville Fire’s 150th anniversary, there’s a lot planned, Puknaitis said. Celebrations, in fact, have already started.

Earlier this spring, Naper Settlement launched a new exhibit honoring the department that will run through December. The department itself has issued commemorative badges and patches for the anniversary. And later this fall, there will be a special open house to pay tribute to the milestone.

Puknaitis says giving the department’s 150 years their due “means a lot” to him.

“Our community needs to know what the Naperville Fire Department is all about today, but they also need to know how we got here,” he said.

©2024 Naperville Sun (Naperville, Ill.). Visit at Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Voice Your Opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of Firehouse, create an account today!