COUNCIL BLUFFS — Keith Bartels remembers the ad in the newspaper.
The Omaha native was looking for work, and Council Bluffs needed firefighters. The year was 1979, the economy was sluggish, and Bartels was out of work.
So he applied.
Thirty-four years later, the longtime firefighter is hanging up his gear.
“It’s a young man’s job. I’m 58 years old now,” Bartels said. “It’s a good time to get out.”
Bartels said he didn’t grow up dreaming of being a firefighter and admitted he applied because there was a job opportunity, not because of some altruistic instinct. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t love the job.
“The economy then was tough. I was unemployed. I got lucky,” he said. “And I’ve been happy ever since; it’s a pretty darn good job.”
Bartels said he loved going to work every day, interacting with his fellow firefighters and meeting people in the community. He said serving the public, helping people in need, is what kept him going for more than three decades.
“Getting things done, trying to save lives and property. Just being there for the community,” he said. “This is rewarding work.”
Interim Fire Chief Larry Wohlers called Bartels an easygoing person, someone who was dependable, always came to work, always working more than his fair share of overtime.
“One of those steady employees,” Wohlers said.
“You look at 34 years, that’s over half his life spent in the fire stations,” Wohlers continued. “He’s devoted a fair share of time to the city of Council Bluffs.”
Bartels was a firefighter and emergency medical technician, able to help out on the fire side or the medical side whenever needed. Wohlers said he has a stack of recommendation letters from supervisors and the general public from over the years that commend the Omaha Ryan High School graduate’s hard work and dedication.
Bartels has six daughters, ranging in age from 30 to 17, and one grandson. He and his wife, Tracy, have been married 24 years. In retirement — which started on Dec. 27 — Bartels said he plans to spend time with family and also travel more. He enjoys the gym and will continue to work out, and he recently took up yoga.
And his work years aren’t complete just yet, as he will continue to work shifts at Brown Transfer, a trucking company in Omaha, where he loads trucks.
“I just want to enjoy retirement, do some new things,” he said. “Just try different things, see what’s out there.”