Wednesday, May 23, 2018
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Firefighters stoke collections


Steve Starkloff, Maumee firefighter, finds most of his toys at antique malls.

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William O'Connor allows his wife to keep one six-inch figurine on an end table in the living room. The rest of the house is off-limits to her decorations.

“What choice do I have?” asked Betty Jane O'Connor. “Most wives couldn't put up with it, but I'm pretty easygoing.”

Mr. O'Connor is a retired Toledo firefighter who has converted every room of his Rossford house, including the basement and the back porch, into exhibition space for antique leather fire hats, alarms, uniforms, and other memorabilia he has collected over the last 50 years. He does the dusting himself because his wife might break something, he said.

Mr. O'Connor is one of several Toledo area firefighters who have made a hobby out of collecting the historical artifacts of their profession. These men flock to flea markets, scope out eBay, and even agree to accompany their wives on Saturday afternoon antique shopping excursions - all in pursuit of an old leather bucket or a tin fire engine pull toy.

Steve Starkloff, 47, of Maumee, a full-time firefighter with the Toledo Fire Department for 17 years, said his collection of toy fire engines and commemorative firefighter platters and figurines has become a family affair.

“It's something my wife and I can do together,” he said, referring to weekend trips to antique malls, where he finds most of his toys. And come holidays and birthdays, family members always know a sure-fire gift for him.

“My wife found this one,” he said, displaying his favorite acquisition, a small Mickey Mouse fire engine made in the 1940s.

She enjoys the hunt too. “It's like finding a missing puzzle piece [to find another toy],” Lorraine Starkloff said.

“He has a lot of pride in his job,” she said. “It's neat that it carried over to a hobby.”

Firefighting is more than a job for these men - it is a calling and a community. That's why Mr. O'Connor, although he has been retired since 1979, still keeps five scanners crackling around the house and every windowsill crowded with toy fire engines and fully functional engine sirens.

“Everything here has a story,” he said, lifting a leather hat made 80 years ago by a friend's grandfather.

At first glance, Mr. O'Connor's porch is a sunny, quiet showplace for dormant Buffalo truck sirens and pull box fire alarms found on Toledo street corners in the early 20th century.

But he need only crank a few handles and press a button or two to send the sirens and alarms whooping so loud it's hard to imagine anyone could ever sit out here and relax with a good book.

“And my wife thought it was going to be a sun porch,” he laughed. “Now she says it's nothing but a fire museum. “

Dave Meegan, 46, a Toledo firefighter whose interest is mostly in firefighting history books, knew he wanted to be a firefighter as a boy, lying awake at night and listening to the sound of fire engines racing down the street.

Mr. Meegan recommends his favorite book in his collection - a story of daily life at a fire station in the Bronx - to all newcomers to his station.

“It inspired me to get into the service,” he said. “I always recommend it to the younger guys.”

Mr. O'Connor, who helped found the Toledo Fire Fighters' Museum, said the passion runs deep. “I've always been kind of a nut about it ... I hate to see the old stuff at the station thrown away,” he said. Museum president, Robert Schwanzl, 69, said he keeps his eye out for old equipment, but not for himself.

“I have some things that bring back a special memory, like the type of nozzle used on the first [fire engines] I worked on,” he said. “But my interest is more along the lines of securing things for the museum.”

Having a museum isn't enough for these firefighters - they have created their own testaments to the profession at home.

“When you say you collect fire stuff, people picture dirty, smoky things,” said Mr. O'Connor, standing on the firefighting-themed welcome mat on his front step.

“They have no conception it could be fire art.”

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