By Laura King
July 24, 2014, Ancaster, Ont. - Fire Chief Mark Mehlenbacher’s funeral was a lot like him: funny much of the time; serious when necessary; and filled with passion.
As Mark did with the people he encountered, Wednesday’s service left an impression on the more than 1,000 friends, politicians, firefighters and fire officers who attended – of a life well lived (which often involved boating and a certain brand of vodka, but never, of course, at the same time!), and a respected fire-service career.
Stories told by family and friends were poignant and consistent: Mark liked boats – the faster the better; he adored his family; and he was loyal to his friends.
Firefighters and fire officers from across Ontario – from Kenora in the northwest to Ottawa in the east – paid their respects to Mehlenbacher, who died last week after cancer took his voice and his strength; they formed an honour guard along the lengthy driveway to Marritt Hall at the Ancaster Fairgrounds before and after the 90-minute service.
Mehlenbacher’s children – Brian, Jeff and Kayla, all young adults – spoke eloquently and proudly about their dad. They told stories – about the time Brian forgot his prom date’s corsage and ended up with a speedy lights-and-sirens escort back to the house to retrieve the forgotten flowers, and about Mark’s little-known career (at least in fire-service circles) as a driver for Ancaster-based English-muffin maker Oakrun Farm Bakery. Mark, it seems, was known as the Muffin Man for his need to beat the other bakery drivers into Toronto so that the shops got his muffins first. Mark the ultra-competitive, Type-A Muffin Man!
Dean Schmidt, who is married to Mehlenbacher’s sister-in-law, brought down the house with anecdotes of boat rides gone awry, meeting Mark when the two of them were dating the Walker sisters – he thanked their parents, Jim and Betty, for putting up with them while they were making out with their daughters! – and of stupid things men do (his words, not mine!).
“Men start off young and stupid, and all we do is get older,” Schmidt said, to a lot of nods and chuckles.
Schmidt’s emotional eulogy – including a bang-on, hands-on-his-head, freaking-out Mehlenbacher impression – made it clear that Mark’s family came first, even though immediate and extended members from both sides understood his commitment to the fire service.
“When the volunteer firefighter beeper thing went off,” Schmidt said, “he was gone in a flash.”
That beeping pager was fodder for a longstanding family prank that involved a talented sister who could imitate the tone to a T. “Mark would go flying out of the room,” Schmidt said, before he realized what was happening, and he fell for it every time.
Mark’s mission, Schmidt said, was to make a difference; a degree in labour studies helped him bridge a union-management gap in St. Catharines after he became chief there in 2008.
“Mark lived and worked his professional dream,” Schmidt said. “He did make a difference to the way fire fighting is conducted.”
Mark became a full-time firefighter in Hamilton in 1986 and moved back to Ancaster, where he became chief; he was deputy chief in Burlington before being named chief in St. Catharines. Mark has been elected in May to a second term as a director of the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs.
Mark’s family, Schmidt said, was touched and overwhelmed by drive-by salutes to honour the ailing chief during his final days at home in Ancaster.
What’s more, Schmidt said, a response by members of the Ancaster fire station to his request to help transfer Mark to a hospital bed in the house from an upstairs bedroom, moved the family beyond words.
“Four of them, including the captain, came to the house with a stair chair and moved Mark,” Schmidt said. Although Mark couldn’t speak or support his own weight, Schmidt said, he beamed with pride knowing that fire-service personnel would do anything to help his family.
“It wasn’t a chair, it was a throne, and Mark wasn’t a fire chief, he was a king,” Schmidt said. “I thank you very much.”
Longtime friend Trent Gervais, a former fire chief in Peterborough, Ont., reminisced about Mark, boats, cheap vodka and Hickory Sticks – a favourite salty snack.
Gervais and Mehlenbacher were inseparable at fire chiefs conferences; their friendship expanded beyond professional boundaries.
The last time Mehlenbacher showed up to Gervais' boat, there was no vodka or Hickory Sticks.
“Our visit this time was different,” Gervais said. “Mark was sick. Mark was fighting with everything he had.
“On occasion,” Gervais said, “a gentle soul comes along in your life, touches your heart, makes you laugh . . . catches you when you are falling, props you up, and as much as they complain about you drinking their vodka, they love it.
“For all of us here today, that is Mark.”
Mark’s sisters, Laurie and Kim, read A Fire Chief’s Prayer. Greater Napanee Fire Chief Terry Gervais presented Mark’s badges to his parents, Moe and Yvonne. Grimsby Chief Michael Cain presented Mark’s hat to daughter Kayla. Mark’s helmet was presented by Niagara Fire Chief Lee Smith to son Jeff. Ontario Fire Marshal Ted Wieclawek presented Mark’s medals to son Brian. Acting St. Catharines chief Dave Wood presented the Canadian flag from Mark’s casket to his wife, Cindy.
The service – organized by Mark’s friends in fire departments in St. Catharines, Hamilton and Burlington, with help from Chief Gervais – the stories, the tributes, the massive fire-service representation and the significant political presence would have blown Mark away.
As an often humble Mark would have said, “Are you kidding me?”