Fallen firefighter to be honored at last

Name of only member of Port department to die in line of duty will be added to state memorial thanks to work of two men a half-century later

PORT WASHINGTON Assistant Fire Chief Lester Olsen (fourth from left) posed for a picture in the 1960s while holding a fire hose with fellow firefighters (from left) James Godersky, Pete Puerling, Clem Ansay, Rich Gahan, Herb Schaefer, Art Mueller and Alvin Bares. Olsen died of a heart attack while fighting a fire on Niesen Road in Port in 1968. Photo courtesy of Port Washington Fire Department
By 
KRISTYN HALBIG ZIEHM
Ozaukee Press staff

Few people in Port Washington knew Lester Olsen, but members of the Port Fire Department are working to ensure his name isn’t forgotten.

Olsen, who was an assistant fire chief, died of a heart attack just more than 51 years ago, on Sept. 30, 1968, while fighting a fire on the city’s north side.

He and his fellow firefighters had arrived at the scene of a truck fire on Niesen Road just minutes before Olsen was stricken. His fellow firefighters administered oxygen while waiting for the rescue squad, which took him to St. Alphonsus Hospital in Port, where he was pronounced dead, according to an Ozaukee Press news story.

The S&Z Construction Co. truck caught fire when gas bottles it was carrying ignited while crews were welding in the area.

Olsen, along with Sun Prairie Fire Department Captain Cory Barr and Lake Mills Fire Department Captain Christopher Truman, will be memorialized on the Wisconsin State Firefighters Memorial in Wisconsin Rapids on Saturday, Oct. 12.

Getting Olsen’s name on the memorial has been a mission for firefighters Scott Ziegler and Steve Schmidt.

“We needed to make this right,” Ziegler said. “Let’s honor his memory and what happened to him in service to Port Washington.”

“He should be on that memorial,” Schmidt added. “You talk about the history and heritage of the fire department, and this is part of it.

“He’s the only line of duty death we’ve had and hopefully will ever have. He shouldn’t be forgotten.”

Ziegler, who has been a member of the memorial’s honor guard since 2000, said he was thumbing through a list of the firefighters on the memorial several years ago when he noticed that Olsen wasn’t on the list.

The oversight is understandable since the memorial has only been in existence since 1981, he said, but it was an oversight that needed correcting.

So he and Schmidt set about to gather the information needed to get Olsen on the memorial. That wasn’t as easy as it sounds, they said, because the fire department’s records from that time were cursory.

“Notes were taken, but they weren’t very accurate,” Schmidt said. 

Adding to the difficulty is the fact that Olsen’s family moved out of the area, his sons have died and his grandchildren are too young to have known him, he said.

Olsen, said Schmidt, was on the department a relatively short time — somewhere between seven and 11 years.

“In those days, a lot of guys stayed on for 20 years or more,” he said. “He moved up the ranks fairly quickly.”

Olsen, who lived with his wife Evelyn on South Spring Street, was an electrician in Port and owner and operator of Olsen Electric Co.

“He was a very nice fellow,” Joe Plier, who served on the department with Olsen, said. “If you had a question, he had time to talk to you about it.”

Don Flierl, said he was “a good chief.”

“Me being a rookie at the time, I didn’t come in contact with him much, but I remember he was a very, very nice man who was dedicated to the department.”

Both men were at the scene when Olsen suffered his heart attack and said it was a shock to everyone on the department.

“They did everything they could,” Plier said. “He was going fine and just
like that he went down. There wasn’t much that could be done for him.”

Schmidt and Ziegler contacted Olsen’s grandson and told him of the recognition. The family said they would try to be at the ceremony, but Ziegler noted that these “legacy recognitions,” as they’re called, frequently occur without family present because they’ve often moved away.

But Schmidt, Port Fire Chief Mark Mitchell and Captain Jim Langford plan to be at the ceremony, along with Ziegler.

“I know it will be a very emotional event,” Schmidt said.

The ceremony is filled with history, Mitchell said, noting it takes place at 3:33 p.m. in recognition of the fact that departments often rang their bells in three sets of three rings to signal members had returned to the station after a fire.

“This is a final return to quarters for individuals who have died,” he said. 

Mitchell said he’s proud of the work that Ziegler and Schmidt put in to remember Olsen.

“We’ve always known about Lester’s death, but it kind of fell through the cracks in terms of the memorial,” Mitchell said, noting Olsen’s name is on the centerpiece of the department’s memorial outside the firehouse. “This is important. It’s something we shouldn’t forget.”

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Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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Port Washington, WI 53074
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