During his three decades with the , retired Fire Chief Mike Koepke did everything from deliver a baby in the back of an ambulance to improve the standard of medical care provided to local residents by Albany firefighters.
He died at the age of 71 at his home in Sutter Creek, CA, in Amador County, due to complications resulting from a long battle with Progressive supranuclear palsy.
Koepke, who lived in Albany from the 1960s until 1994, joined the Fire Department as a 24-year-old firefighter in 1965, and later was appointed chief in 1976, becoming one of the youngest people to lead the department since its creation.
By the time he retired in 1992, Koepke had established a reputation for his intelligence and good humor, and was known even beyond Albany as a leader among Bay Area fire chiefs, said friends and fellow firefighters who shared their memories of Koepke earlier this month.
"He was the smartest guy they had there, but you wouldn't know it by talking to him," said friend , 85, who was a firefighter in Albany for 27 years. "He never bragged about anything. He was just an average guy, as far as being around him."
Heaney, of Walnut Creek, said Koepke had a keen memory, and picked up new information quickly; both of these qualities catapulted him at a young age straight from the position of the department's youngest captain to fire chief.
Friend and retired Albany firefighter Ray Gonzalves, 85, recalled Koepke's effort to become chief, in which Koepke underwent an oral exam by other fire chiefs from around the area.
"He was their top pick," said Gonzalves, who still lives in Albany. "The other captains that had taken the exam, and even the assistant chief, they all said he was the top.... He was just quick. He knew everything. You didn't have to tell him. When I had an assignment, I didn't have to show him how to do it. He just excelled."
Gonzalves first supervised Koepke as his captain, and later was Koepke's right-hand man, as fire marshal.
Once, in Koepke's early days with the department, Gonzalves remembered a particularly memorable medical call. In those days, Albany police would drive the ambulance, he said, and a firefighter would accompany patients in the back.
On that call, Koepke was alone in the back of the ambulance with a pregnant woman who was in labor as the police officer in the driver's seat rushed them toward Kaiser Medical Center. As they passed Berkeley on the freeway, Gonzalves said, Koepke ended up delivering the woman's baby. (The woman ended up giving her son the middle name "Michael" in Koepke's honor.) To his knowledge, Gonzalves said, Koepke was the first Albany firefighter to perform such a feat.
(Following that call, the Fire Department shifted to a two-man ambulance team for medical problems, said Gonzalves. The Fire Department later took over driving the ambulance as well.)
Koepke also won praise when his shift responded to a raging fire on Peralta Avenue during the holidays of 1968. He and another firefighter, Richard Courtney, carried three children out of a house, and made sure a fourth child and their mother escaped safely.
But it was their rescue of the family dog, Snoopy, that earned them particular attention, as well as a citation from the Berkeley Humane Society. They had found the dog unconscious under a bed, and later gave him oxygen. According to a photo caption in a book of Albany's history, Koepke said, "Nobody said much about the people we rescued."
Current Albany Fire Capt. Jay Jorgensen said Koepke was the person who hired him when Jorgensen started with the department in 1985.
Jorgensen said it was Koepke who upgraded firefighter medical training requirements, from EMTs to paramedics, due to his commitment to provide a higher standard of care to the community.
He described Koepke and more recently retired Fire Chief as "the last of the tradition of chiefs who came up through the ranks," rather than being hired from outside to run the department. (Albany now with the city of Piedmont.)
Jorgensen remembered Koepke as very much a part of Albany, and involved with a number of local organizations.
"He was pretty well-liked by just about everybody," said Jorgensen. "He was kinda serious but he had a sense of humor."
Added longtime friend, and former Albany mayor, Bill Lewis: "If you needed a hand, he'd give you a hand. He was the person everybody would like to have as a friend."
Lewis, 78, lived in Albany for most of his life, running , helping to build the city's , raising money for the and library overhaul, and chairing numerous city commissions.
Lewis and Koepke worked together on the Teen Center, as well as other projects.
"He was always a friend of mine. We had a lot of fun together," said Lewis. Some of Lewis' favorite memories, he said, came after the workday was done. "We'd sit around and have a beer, tell a couple tall tales."
According to records compiled by Ray Gonzalves, during his career Koepke at times served as president of the Alameda County Fire Chiefs Association; director of Civil Defense, which later became the Office of Emergency Services; and commissioner on the Albany Police & Fire Fund.
Gonzalves said that, even after Koepke retired, he was a dedicated member of an informal group of city retirees known as the "Over the Albany Hill Gang." The group meets several times a year to socialize and reminisce. During Koepke's 10 years of participation, he rarely missed a meeting, said Gonzalves.
Gonzalves organized the group and recalls inviting various retirees to participate. He said many of the invitees would want to know if Koepke would be in attendance: "They'd all want to sit at his table."
But, as Koepke's health declined, he eventually made the decision to stop attending the reunions. Gonzalves said Koepke kept his illness, a degenerative disease involving the gradual deterioration and death of areas of the brain, a tightly-guarded secret from nearly everyone outside his immediate family.
"He didn't want anybody to know," said Gonzalves. "He wanted to keep it to himself."
Gonzalves recalls Koepke as "a fireman's fireman," and, even more than that, "a highly regarded friend. If you knew him, it was to love him. He'd do anything for you."
According to his obituary, Koepke was born in Junction City, KS, to Margaret (Irwin) and Horace Herman Koepke. He is survived by his son, Michael Koepke, of Hercules; daughter, Alisha, and her husband Robert Jensen, of Hercules; former wife, Shirley Koepke; brothers, John Koepke (Mary), of San Pablo; David Koepke (Anna), of El Sobrante; Jim Koepke (Candy), of WA; Steve Koepke, of Richmond.; grandchildren, Michael Andrew Koepke, Jeffrey Scott Koepke, Natalie Renee Jensen, Mathew Robert Jensen, Audrey May Lujan, William Bilbrey, Michael Bilbrey, Alicia Bilbrey; many nieces and nephews and his wonderful caregiver of 2 years, Falo Tawake. He was preceded by son, Jeff Koepke in 1991.
A celebration of his life will take place at the Albany Community Center at 7 p.m. on June 30.
In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions may be made to Widows, Orphans & Disabled Firemen's Fund, PO Box 41903, Los Angeles, CA, 90041 or Cure PSP, 30 E. Padonia Rd, Suite 201, Timonium, MD.
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