Romeo Maldonado of Lakeville is retiring after 27 years at the Flint Hills Resources refinery in Rosemount, but he won't be doing much fishing.
The affable Maldonado, 61, is going home to Guatemala to help the impoverished village of San Lucas Toliman, where he grew up. A volunteer fireman in Flint's fire department for more than 12 years, he plans to teach firefighting, fire safety and rescue techniques to San Lucas firefighters. He also will donate some basic firefighting gear.
Maldonado said he was invited to join his hometown fire department, where most firefighters are equipped only with gloves and rubber boots. There's no siren to summon firefighters; they respond when they hear the city bell ringing.
"We are very poor. So I see a lot of needs," he said.
Maldonado studied in college to be an elementary teacher, but his life took an abrupt turn when he was about 19. He met a young woman from Minnesota who visited his Mayan village, which sits on beautiful Lake Atitlan between two dormant volcanoes. Patricia Smith was part of a mission team sent by the Diocese of New Ulm with a truckload of blankets and medicine to work in the San Lucas Catholic church and school.
The two soon were married and returned to Minnesota in 1970 to show off their first daughter to her Minnesota grandparents.
"I drove the [mission] truck to Coon Rapids and she said, 'We're staying,'" Maldonado said. It was January and he soon discovered that "this is Eskimo country."
He got a summer job laying sod, had another daughter, then worked 10 years making cranes for American Hoist in St. Paul until he was laid off in 1984. He applied to be an equipment operator at what was then Koch Refinery. He was hired by a music-loving manager who heard him playing an organ in the background when his wife answered the telephone.
"I played the samba on the phone for him," said Maldonado. He also plays guitar, marimba, piano and accordion, which his dad, now 90, taught him. He will live near his father, Carlos, and he has eight siblings in the San Lucas area, he said. His mother died a few years ago.
Maldonado will return to Minnesota in the warmer months of the year to see his wife and four grandchildren. Maria, his second wife, plans to join him in Guatemala when she retires in a few years, he said.
Big plans for his return
Maldonado plans to take blood pressure cuffs and a set of two-way radios for San Lucas firefighters when he leaves late this month for Guatemala. He hopes to set up a firefighter equipment fund through the Diocese of New Ulm, which has continued its mission in San Lucas for nearly 50 years.
Over the years Maldonado received extensive training in first aid and firefighting while working at the refinery, which converts crude oil into gasoline, jet fuel and other products. He'll take those skills with him as well.
He was one of the first firefighters when the refinery started its fire department in 1991, said Flint Hills spokesman Jake Reint. He said Maldonado became a leader and helped develop department training before he retired as a firefighter about five years ago.
"Romeo has been a very kind and giving man and has really impacted many of us here with his good-natured ways. His sense of humor and his smile were a welcomed part of our day," Reint added.
Deputy Fire Chief Dan Moe said he was a rookie in 2003 when he fought a big fire in the crude oil unit with Maldonado, who was a sector leader.
"He was very professional. He knew what people had to do to get the fire under control," Moe said. "He was very personable and a good teacher."
Jim Adams • 952-707-9996