The final call of Jeff VanPatten’s 35-year career with the Antioch fire department has faded from memory.
That’s understandable, as he couldn’t have known that particular Saturday in early 2020 would be his last day on the job. Or the end of a 108-year family tradition spanning four generations.
“When you’re not expecting it to end, everything seems like just another call,” VanPatten said.
In a sense, the Antioch fire department became the family business for the VanPattens.
Jeff’s great-grandfather Llewellyn “Lou” VanPatten Sr. was a charter member and two-time chief of the then-volunteer department, which was organized March 13, 1913.
His grandfather Laurel “Louie” VanPatten and father, Gerald “Jerry” VanPatten, continued the tradition.
“Back then, there was a whistle on top of the water tower. There was a fire whistle and a rescue whistle, two different pitches,” Jeff VanPatten said. “If you hear the whistle, you go. Then they had the pager.”
VanPatten has two sons, but so far neither has expressed an interest in continuing the tradition.
During the family run, the VanPattens served the community as volunteers, then paid on call. All had other full-time jobs.
“Lou Sr. worked at the hardware store in town,” said Carolyn VanPatten, secretary/treasurer of the First Fire Protection District of Antioch Township, the department’s official name. “Louie worked as a machinist. Jerry worked as a builder, and most of the time he was a salesman for a lumber company here in Antioch.”
By the time Jeff hung up his gear, the department was a 24/7 operation with part-time employees working 12-hour shifts on selected days at one of three firehouses.
“Everybody ahead of me all worked together, but by the time I got there [in 1985], they were pretty much done,” VanPatten said of his family predecessors.
“As kids, we were always at the firehouse,” VanPatten added. “It’s kind of a family thing.”
VanPatten was green in his early days.
“At first it was, ‘Follow that guy and do whatever he tells you to do,’” VanPatten said.
He became a state-certified firefighter and spent his career in that capacity, eventually driving the apparatus.
“When the department got more structured and we started running EMS trained [personnel], they said you can go to EMS school or you can drive,” VanPatten said.
He also was a teacher and a fixture at the firehouse, with a wealth of knowledge and experience.
“He’s been an integral part of training new firefighters,” said Chief Jon Cokefair. “He was big into sharing the knowledge he had.”
He still was at it in March 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic arrived and shutdowns were ordered. He stepped back after being told by his full-time employer he would have to quarantine if exposed to the virus.
What he initially thought would be a short leave of absence dragged on as the virus didn’t relent. And while the fire service was in his heritage, it wasn’t the bread and butter that paid the bills.
“It took awhile to decide I was going to hang it up,” he said. “Quitting the family business is not an easy” decision.
Last week, VanPatten was honored by family, friends and co-workers past and present during a walkout ceremony at the main station in downtown Antioch.
“It’s something I’ve done for so long, but on the other hand, it’s a good time to keep moving and see what’s out there,” he said.