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Hanging up the gear

Longtime West Liberty fire chief retires

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Outgoing West Liberty Fire Chief John Esch hangs up fire equipment Friday in the garage of the fire department. Chief Esch retires effective today after 41 years of service. EXAMINER PHOTO | NATE SMITH

A longtime village fire chief retires effective today at the age of 70 following more than 40 years of service to his hometown community.

December would have marked John Esch’s 42nd year as a firefighter in West Liberty, the town in which he was raised. He’s been on the West Liberty Fire Department since 1973 and has been chief since 1999.

Longtime assistant chief Conrad Hostetler will take over. Larry Reed, another longtime volunteer firefighter, will be the assistant.

A transition has been in the works for some time, Chief Esch said. His retirement was announced in June and the department began preparing for the transition then.

Friday, reflecting on his tenure, Chief Esch said his most memorable incident in his time on the department was the fire that destroyed his family’s business — and much of the reason he and his wife ended up returning to West Liberty to begin with.

A blaze burnt down Esch’s Meats Inc. in 1979, a decades-old meat processing outfit started by Chief Esch’s father. The would-be chief worked there at the urging of his family throughout his teenage years and upon his return to West Liberty from Portland, Ore., with his wife, Iris, in the early 1970s.

The couple met during their period of voluntary service under the Mennonite Board of Missions at the Sunshine Children’s Home in northwest Ohio.

“Iris was from Oregon and we moved back there,” Chief Esch said. “It’s beautiful there, and I would’ve stayed.”

The Esches settled down in West Liberty, though, as he went to work with his family and joined his brothers and friends on the volunteer fire department.

“That fire had a big impact on me emotionally then,” the chief said. “It started in the smokehouse in the back of the retail store, a grease tray that got too hot.”

Part of the rear area in the family’s retail meat shop in downtown West Liberty was rented out to a local egg farm that stored polyethylene foam containers at the meat store.

“Once those egg cartons caught fire, the whole building went up,” Chief Esch said, noting that departments from Bellefontaine and Zanesfield were also called to the fire.

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