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Owatonna retiree comes from family of firefighters

Matt Kath, retires, Owatonna firefighter
Joni Hubred, News Editor

After 27 years and 3 months, Matt Kath no longer listens for the sound of a pager going off in the middle of the night.

Kath retired this month from the Owatonna Fire Department (OFD). The career is something of a family tradition; of the five Kath brothers, three have served with OFD. Kath’s niece Leila currently represents the family as a fire equipment operator.

Brother Marlin became a paid, on-call “sleeper” or resident firefighter in the 1980s, staying in a barracks at the Fire Hall on Main Street.

“You basically live there, you make it your home,” Kath said. “I thought that was interesting.”

He applied for the first time in 1990 but wasn’t hired. A year later, Kath joined the Minnesota Army National Guard, where he served for more than 22 years.

When he was turned down again in 1991, Kath thought maybe being a firefighter wasn’t in his future. But in 1995, he applied again and was hired along with his younger brother, Merlin, friend Bob Hager and Bruce Thomas. All four are now retired.


Fire Hall memories

Kath said he kept applying because “I really wanted to do it.”

“It was something I had a real interest in,” he said.

Back then, training included hours of classroom work and participating in a house burn. When Kath started, resident firefighters took a unique route to get from the second-floor to their trucks, which were parked where the training room is now.

“In the living room, there was a rope you pulled, and a piece of the floor came up, and the pole to go to the fire trucks was down below,” he said.

During construction of an addition and remodel, firefighters moved into the basement and had to climb up stairs to get to the bays. Kath said he was the last firefighter to stay in the old barracks.

He is also memorialized in a mural on the outside of the Fire Hall–although you won’t see his name anywhere on it.

The artists who painted the mural needed someone to demonstrate sliding down a fire pole, and Kath stepped up–so to speak. He had to come down a couple of times, he said. At first, he was moving too fast for them to catch details like where he placed his feet.

He took a little razzing for it, but his wife, Jill, always pointed out the painting to their daughters, Arica, now 21, and Courtney, 20.

“That was my modeling career,” Kath said with a smile. “When our kids were small, Jill would say to the girls, ‘There’s dad coming down the pole’.”


Remembering the good

Emergency workers often see people in the most terrible circumstances, but Kath prefers to remember the more positive stories. Like the time a semi-truck hit the median on I-35 near Bridge Street and sent hundreds of pounds of potatoes flying.

“There was potatoes everywhere, we were slippin’ and slidin’,” Kath said.

The semi cab looked so bad that Kath said he expected the worst as he approached it with another firefighter, Darin Brown.

“We opened the door and the driver of the semi come shooting out of there so quick, he kind of startled us,” he said. “There was nothing wrong with him.”

Another memorable situation had Kath and Hager struggling to get the hood up on a vehicle whose engine was on fire.

“We were just smashing the hood, the bumper, trying to find the hood release,” he said. “After about a couple of minutes… the homeowner comes over and he says, well, the hood opens the other way.”


Family sacrifices

Not knowing how any given call will turn out, as well as the enjoyment he got from doing the job, kept Kath with the OFD for more than a quarter-century. He also acknowledges the sacrifices, especially those made by his family.

“Having an older brother (with the department), it was kind of part of our family,” he said. “We had family suppers at the Fire Hall. You made it the house for the gathering.”

Kath said he is grateful for his family’s support, particularly his wife, Jill, who took on raising their daughters alone while he was on deployment for the National Guard and on call with the fire department.

“Jill has been the backbone in raising our kids,” he said.

While retired from the fire service, Kath is not the kind of guy to spend the rest of his days in an easy chair. He’ll still run his 15-year-old business, Kath Moving & Transfer, and hopes to get in some hunting and fishing.

He also looks forward to being fully present for more family events and taking family vacations.

Despite the sacrifices, Kath said, he values his time with Owatonna Fire Department. He learned something from all the firefighters he worked with and the one who taught him.

“It just made me a better person,” he said. “You gotta want to do it and have the heart for it. You gotta commit.”

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