When Jim Compton interviewed to join the Hugo Fire Department 35 years ago, he was asked why he wanted to be a firefighter. "I care about people," he said.
In 2008, after a tornado tore through Hugo, the face of Fire Chief Compton became familiar throughout the metro. So did his words -- "Train as if your life depends on it" -- spoken during the sleepless days after the Memorial Day devastation as he described how the city's firefighters raced to help.
Now, Compton is retiring -- and so might his assistant chief, Fire Marshal Marty Schwartz, who could leave by the end of the year.
"They're going to leave a significant void because of the years of service and experience they've given the citizens of Hugo," said Mayor Fran Miron.
Last month, the City Council approved Compton's letter of resignation as fire chief, a position he held for 11 years. He leaves the job in June.
"Jim has done a tremendous amount for the city's fire department," said City Administrator Bryan Bear. "He has a lot to be proud of himself for." One of Compton's "biggest accomplishments," Bear said, was establishing an agreement with nearby White Bear Lake to provide ambulance service in Hugo.
Like many of his firefighters, Compton worked day and night after the tornado tore through Hugo's north side on a holiday evening. A 2-year-old boy died, eight residents were injured and more than 50 houses were destroyed or damaged.
"He provided outstanding leadership for both the city and the department," Bear said.
Schwartz has worked at the fire department for 31 years. While there has been no official word of his departure, Schwartz has "hinted" at retirement before the end of the year, Bear said. Schwartz, in his dual roles as fire marshal and assistant chief, has been invaluable to Hugo. He conducts inspections, enforces the city's fire code, teaches fire prevention and is responsible for maintenance.
Both men fought major fires in recent years, including one that reduced a Hugo landmark, Carpenter's Steak House, to ashes in January 2010. The 118-year-old landmark was rumored as a gathering for gangsters from St. Paul during Prohibition.
"Between their shared leadership, the members in the department are more skilled, more trained and more qualified because of them," Miron said.
Andrew Johnson is a University of Minnesota journalism student on assignment for the Star Tribune.