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Kolisch hits end of long firefighting career

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By Kevin Hanson-The Courier-Herald

Joe Kolisch leans back in his desk chair, pauses to consider a firefighter's lifestyle that has spanned more than four decades, and admits, “it's been a good run.”

Kolisch considers himself lucky to have made great friends and impacted countless lives while responding to fires and medical emergencies, and appears at ease with the fact his days among the fraternity of active firefighters have come to an end.

Today, Wednesday, is the final day in uniform for the chief of Enumclaw Fire/District 28. Closing in on 63, Kolisch is calling it a career.

But that doesn't necessarily mean he'll be slowing down. While some see retirement as a time to putter in the yard, take long naps and catch up on their daytime TV, Kolisch recoils at such a thought.

“I really, honestly don't know what I'll be doing,” Kolisch said, but he assures he'll keep busy. “I'll be doing something, I hope, that's completely different. I don't particularly want to get into anything emergency-services related.

“I have to be doing something,” Kolisch added. “I'm a working person.”

The formative years

Kolisch is among those who have traveled thousands of miles from home, only to wind up exactly where they started. He's Plateau born and raised and a 1962 graduate of White River High School.

A three-sport athlete, Kolisch jokes that “I probably wouldn't have gotten out of high school if it wasn't for athletics.” The competitive memories remain crystal clear, like the time he made two free throws to win a game in University Place.

The glory days at White River came to an end, and “I joined the Army to see the world,” Kolisch said. Things don't always go as planned and, because he scored high on a test he doesn't recall, Kolisch was assigned to West Point, helping an instructor teach recruits the intricacies of creating greater horsepower.

After less than a year, he asked for a transfer to Thailand, where there was a bit more action. “But the guys that wanted to go to Thailand were sent to West Germany, and the guys who asked for Germany were shipped to Thailand,” Kolisch explains. Thus, he spent the rest of his military days as a radio operator/repairman in the signal corps.

After returning home, Kolisch landed a job driving a forklift in Sumner for $2.45 an hour. “I was young and bumming around, trying to figure out what I was going to do,” he said.

Things changed when he bluffed his way into a better-paying position with Tidebay Inc. in Tacoma. There, he helped fabricate parts that found their way into chemical plants.

“We weren't very popular in the late ‘70s,” Kolisch recalls.

All the while, he had been prepping for what would become his career - and, as Kolisch recalls, he really didn't have much say in the matter. Roy Wesner was Buckley's fire chief when Kolisch was in his early 20s and, as fate would have it, was Kolisch's next-door neighbor. “He told me there was a meeting Wednesday night at the fire hall and I should be there,” Kolisch said.

“I figured I'd try it for a couple of years.”

Fast forward to 1978, when Kolisch - by then serving as Buckley's volunteer chief - was tabbed as Enumclaw's first paid chief.

A new era in Enumclaw

When Kolisch was chosen to take the reins in Enumclaw, it came with one key directive: the department was to develop an emergency response program. Until then, everything centered on fighting fires.

Tackling new duties didn't always come easy. Now, Kolisch can quip, “I think we killed more people than we helped.”

That's a joke, or course, but Kolisch clearly recalls the first medical call his department had to respond to. A senior citizen was experiencing chest pains and Kolisch unleashed every available unit.

“I had tears in my eyes,” Kolisch said, recalling the mad scramble of staff, gear and rigs.

Taking care of medical calls quickly became the department's primary job. Today, Kolisch estimates, about 70 percent of all calls are for medical aide and range from chest pains to those injured in automobile accidents.

Running the combined city/county department has been an ever-evolving challenge, Kolisch said.

“It's a constant change around here,” he said, recalling the early days when his desk didn't hold a computer terminal and his phone had just two lines, one business and one personal.

Asked what memories he'll take from his job and Kolisch is quick to answer. “I've worked with a very, very talented group of people, exceptionally talented,” he said.

He's adamant that the crew gets all the credit for the department's successes. “I've never used the word ‘I,' it's always been ‘we,'” Kolisch said.

As Kolisch steps away, the department includes office manager Pam Wik and an assistant, six paid firefighters and a fleet of more than 40 volunteers.

That's adequate for today, but Kolisch has words of warning for those who will follow. Once Enumclaw's building moratorium is lifted and new homes are filled with new families, he said, “it's going to put pressure on the departments, both fire and police.”

Wik, who has been with the department 16 years, calls Kolisch “the best boss anybody could ever work for.

“He's very kind and compassionate,” Wik said, “and extremely dedicated to the fire department.”

Also quick to heap praise on the retiring chief is a professional counterpart, Alan Predmore, chief of the Buckley Fire Department.

“Joe has made that department what it is,” Predmore said, noting that Kolisch has become both a close personal friend and professional mentor over the years.

He also suggests that Kolisch is among the last of the old-time fire chiefs, meaning professional firefighters who have expertise in every task the department is asked to handle. The job has become “a lot more administrative,” Predmore said, explaining Kolisch is a jack of all trades who can handle anything the job throws his way.

Sports at the forefront

Especially during Kolisch's younger years, he was known around town as much for his softball prowess as his job title.

Even now, he's linked with the Wishbone Tournament, which faded into Plateau sports lore years ago. It was one of the highlights of the year, drawing teams from all over the Pacific Northwest for some serious innings of slowpitch.

“If you lived through the game, you were in good shape,” Kolisch laughs, recalling that friendships disappeared between the lines but were quickly rekindled once the final out was made.

Kolisch played until hitting 50, giving up the game after perhaps one contest in an “over 50” league. The rules were different, he said, making concessions for age, “and that just wasn't for me.”

He spent a couple of years guiding the fortunes of the White River High School softball program, helping make the transition from slowpitch to fastpitch. He was persuaded to cross the river and spend two years coaching the Enumclaw High freshman team.

Today, he's a visible part of the White River athletic program, volunteering his medical training to the Hornet cause. He can be found Friday nights in the fall on the sidelines at football games and spends winters in the Hornet gym with the basketball programs, both boys and girls.

“I'll be around my high school until they throw me out,” Kolisch said. “I happen to think the world of all our coaches out there and I just love the kids. They're so funny.”

Family remains No. 1

Kolisch makes no effort to hide his admiration for his wife, Sherry, an operations manager at KeyBank. She's a fellow White River High graduate and, as Kolisch recalls, they met because “I ran around with her brother.”

Together, they have a son and a daughter and each has provided three grandchildren. There are five boys and a girl and, as Kolisch is quick to point out, “usually, one of ‘em is not too far away from grandma and grandpa.”

Kevin Hanson can be reached at khanson@courierherald.com.

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