DeKALB – Jim Zarek plans to retire after 29 years with the DeKalb Fire Department, and you probably can guess where he applied for his ideal retirement job: another fire department.
Zarek, who ascended the ranks over the years and was promoted to deputy chief in April 2016, is one of five finalists for the fire chief job in Janesville, Wisconsin.
“One doesn’t have anything to do with the other,” he said about retiring and pursuing the Janesville job. “I just felt it was time here.”
Zarek, 51, filed retirement paperwork Friday, and his last day on the job will be Feb. 15. He said he applied for the Janesville position in November, and the proximity to DeKalb was a major factor.
Zarek lives in town with his wife, Elizabeth, and their youngest son, Logan, is an 18-year-old senior at DeKalb High School. Another of their five children, Keith, 31, lives in DeKalb with the Zareks’ two grandchildren: Hudson, 4, and Annabelle, 2.
Zarek said he also would like to stay involved with the local Boy Scouts, which Logan came up through to become an Eagle Scout.
“I still want to stay close, because there’s a lot of things I still do here, so the distance was a big factor,” Zarek said, adding that the Janesville job was the only ring into which he’s thrown his helmet.
After former Fire Chief Eric Hicks announced his retirement in November, the department's other deputy chief, Jeff McMaster, was named interim chief. Hicks said there's no certain timeline on when a permanent chief will be named, nor is there one for when a member of the department could be promoted to deputy chief.
“All of our upper-echelon officers have a wide array of talents and skills,” said McMaster, who has served 23 years with the department. “That makes this exciting – when you have an opportunity like this, and you have people who are more than qualified to step up.”
As for losing Zarek?
“We knew he was coming close to his retirement time,” McMaster said. “You can’t replace a guy with his knowledge base, but you prepare.”
The four other finalists for the Janesville job are the department's interim chief, Jim Ponkauskas; John C. Clark, fire chief of Baker City, Oregon; Donald J. Kaderabek, retired deputy fire chief of Bloomingdale; and Ernest G. Rhodes III, former fire chief of West County EMS and Fire Protection District in Manchester, Missouri, according to a report from the Janesville Gazette.
Zarek said another factor in seeking the job is that the department’s size is comparable to that of DeKalb’s.
“In retiring, I didn’t want to take on more stress,” he said, laughing.
Retiring and simply taking on new hobbies wasn’t an option, either.
“I don’t want to not do anything,” Zarek said. “I’m not that way.”
The new Janesville chief, however, will enter a situation where the department’s union and the city leave something to be desired, according to the Gazette report. It also reported that the local union president claimed in October the city mishandled contract negotiations.
The report said the consulting company GovHR will do tests with the candidates Jan. 29, and Janesville’s police and fire commission will interview each of them the next day.