His emotions are never far from the surface, but July 15 was a particularly tearful day for firefighter Tom Matousek. Thirty years ago to the day, Matousek worked his first shift as a full-time firefighter in Forest Park. This one would be his last.
“Every emotion that ever was is here in this station,” Matousek said.
After three decades of putting out fires, responding to accidents, saving lives, losing victims and waging through political wars, Matousek said it was time for a different pace. There’s a life-and-death element to the job of a rescue worker that is both intensely rewarding and overwhelmingly intense. Add to that 20 years as the president of the department’s union and Matousek’s career is particularly stellar, according to Fire Chief Steve Glinke.
This is the way it’s supposed to work,” Glinke said of Matousek’s retirement. “You do 30 years and max out your pension. You go out and you’re still healthy. Your memories are good and the job you did was honorable.
“He’s covered a lot of ground. He saw some things here that had a huge impact on the village.”
Matousek’s record as one of the organizing forces behind the firefighters’ union is one that he’s extremely proud of. Establishing a baseline upon which future employment conditions would be built often put him at the center of controversy – both in the firehouse and in village hall.
But none of those memories touch him in the way that being a firefighter has forever changed his life.
“There’s still a few calls that make me well up,” Matousek, 56, said.
With tears in his eyes and a crack in his voice, Matousek remembers a fire from decades ago in which a 10-year-old boy ran back inside a burning home on Lathrop Avenue to save his dog. The boy never made it back out. Because Matousek was a newcomer to the station, it was his job to go inside and recover the body. He said he’ll never forget finding that child next to his dog.
There was another call in which he responded to a plea for help from a mother whose infant had stopped breathing. When he made it to the lobby of the residential building, the woman rushed out of the elevator and handed him a lifeless child.
“My daughter was only six months old,” Matousek said, recalling that time. “I remember going into her room and holding her.”
Tim Conrad, the newest union president and an 18-year colleague of Matousek’s, said everyone in the station understands the emotional burdens of the job. The work can bring firefighters closer together, and that environment certainly helps breed moments of levity.
Bob McDermott, now deputy chief at the station, remembers being handed a grocery list in his rookie years while Matousek was master of the kitchen. McDermott returned with a cheaper brand of ketchup and will never forget the scolding he took.
Matousek’s liberal use of garlic, too, is the stuff of legend, according to McDermott.
“It’s good for your heart,” Matousek replied.