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Published: Monday, 8/29/2011

Lon Tonjes, 1948-2011: Retired fire chief served in Vietnam

BLADE STAFF

GRAND RAPIDS — Lon Tonjes, who recently retired as Grand Rapids Township fire chief and was the third generation of his family to serve in the volunteer department, died Saturday in his home in Grand Rapids. He was 63.

Mr. Tonjes was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis about four years ago, but continued his duties as fire chief, said his wife, Judi. He resigned with sad regret in June because of failing health, she said.

He had been chief for 18 years, following in the footsteps of his late father, Bill Tonjes, who had been chief from 1959 to 1970.

Mrs. Tonjes said she helped her husband compose his resignation letter.

“It was a difficult decision for both of us. This had been a part of both our lives for 40 years,” she said. “These firemen aren’t just men. They are his brothers in a way. Some of them are like his kids.”

Mr. Tonjes joined the department after serving in the U.S. Army from 1967 to 1970, including one year in Vietnam.

He began as a firefighter and emergency medical responder and was captain before being named chief.

His grandfather had also been a volunteer on the department.

“Firefighting and rescues were in his blood,” his wife said.

“Lon started going to fires when he was 5 years old. His grandmother would pick him up and take him.”

Eric Flora, who is the current fire chief, joined the township fire department 18 years ago, working under Mr. Tonjes while he was both captain and chief.

“He was a great leader. He wouldn’t ask his guys to do anything that he wouldn’t do himself,” Mr. Flora said. “He definitely was a hands-on chief.”

Mr. Tonjes graduated from Grand Rapids High School in 1966. He worked at Marathon Products and later at Pearl Gas in Bowling Green until he was drafted into the Army.

After the service, Mr. Tonjes returned to Marathon and then returned in the 1970s to Pearl Gas, delivering propane to residential and business customers.

He worked at Pearl Gas for 20 years and then joined K.A. Bergquist, Inc., in Springfield Township. He retired from the propane parts distributor three years ago on a disability, Mrs. Tonjes said.

He married the former Judi Wallace on Oct. 3, 1970.

Mr. Tonjes also was on the Wood County Board of Health from 1989 to three weeks ago and had served on Grand Rapids council.

Surviving are his wife, Judi; son, Wayne; daughters, Elizabeth Bertonaschi and Emily Petersen, and three granddaughters.

Services will be at 11 a.m. Wednesday in the Wright-Habegger Funeral Home, where visitation will be held from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Monday and 2 p.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday. Masonic services will be at 7 p.m. Monday and the Last Alarm service will be at 7 p.m. Tuesday.

The family requests tributes to volunteer fire department building fund, Honor Flight of Northwest Ohio, or Bridge Hospice.



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