Army Cpl. Charlie Birkeli returned to Minneapolis in 1953 from the front lines of the Korean War. The son of a Norwegian immigrant baker, he figured he'd follow in his father's flour-dusted footsteps.
"He went to the Dunwoody Institute to be a baker, but one day his buddies stopped by to say they were going to take the Fire Department exam," said June Holin, 57, Birkeli's daughter who lives in Richfield. "It was a fluke; he went along on a whim and passed."
Two fires would define Birkeli's nine years with the Minneapolis Fire Department. When a Christmas tree went up in flames in the lobby of Doctors Memorial Hospital near Loring Park in the early morning hours of Dec. 23, 1956, eight people were killed, including a baby with a heart defect in an incubator. Birkeli helped rescue five babies from the fifth-floor nursery, and a photo in the next day's Minneapolis Star — showing Birkeli cradling one of the saved infants — added light to a dark Christmas Eve.
On Sept. 24, 1965, Birkeli was among 150 firefighters responding to a five-alarm fire at the Old Dutch potato chip plant in downtown Minneapolis. Built in 1890 as the Corn Exchange Building, the seven-story building was expanded and converted to fry and bag chips in the 1950s.
All 24 employees escaped the massive fire, which spread quickly through the building's wooden beams amid fears that 8,000 gallons of corn and peanut oil could ignite in the basement. Birkeli had been on duty since midnight and was scheduled to finish his shift 30 minutes before the first alarm sounded at 7:32 a.m.
One of the first firefighters up the ladder to get a hose to the upper floors, he fell into the rubble as the warehouse annex collapsed on him. His body was recovered 12 hours later. He was 33, the father of three and the first Minneapolis firefighter in 17 years killed in the line of duty.
Paige Van Vorst and Steve Skaar went to the scene of the fire that day. Best friends while growing up in Minneapolis, they visited fire stations across the city as teens and remain self-proclaimed "fire buffs" today.
A native of Red Wing, Birkeli had moved with his family to Minneapolis and graduated from Southwest High School. "Charlie was a super guy who always — and I mean always — made time to talk to us when we'd visit," said Skaar, 75, who publishes the Extra Alarmer, a local firefighting newsletter.
Van Vorst, a longtime banker in Chicago, estimates he visited Birkeli 25 times as a kid. When he told his firefighting hero that he'd visited all of Minneapolis' fire houses except the off-limits military station at the airport, Birkeli drove him out there on his day off.
Van Vorst and Skaar were students at the University of Minnesota in 1965 when the Old Dutch fire ignited. "One of the other firemen we knew motioned us over and told us Charlie was missing," said Skaar, choking up 56 years later. "It was devastating."
"He'd almost made it to a fire escape," Van Vorst said.
Fast forward 40 years to 2005, when Skaar was working at the Hiawatha Golf Course in Minneapolis and a team of Junior League girls arrived to tee off.
"The guy behind the counter looked at the sign-in sheet and asked me if my name was pronounced Berkeley and if I was related to Charlie Birkeli," said Jenna Birkeli Voigt, 27, a Bancroft Elementary School teacher in Minneapolis. "I said no one ever pronounces my name correctly and, yes, that was my grandfather."
One of Charlie's six grandkids, Jenna was born nearly 30 years after he died. She grew up in her grandparents' old house near 46th Street and Garfield Avenue S.
"He was my hero," Jenna said, "but I didn't know him."
Every week when she golfed, Jenna said Skaar would share a different story about Charlie Birkeli.
"I'm super extroverted and outgoing while most members of our family are introverts," Jenna said. "Steve told me how I laughed just like my grandfather, and I finally figured out where my different personality came from."
June Holin, the youngest of Charlie and Dede Birkeli's three kids, was 15 months old when her dad died. Her brothers, Jeff and Joe, were 5 and 3. They know their dad mostly through stories.
"He was a real go-getter and prankster," said Holin, talking about how her dad repainted the axes and implements of other rescue squads with his squad's colors. "He used to take the dummy used during ladder drills and sit him in a chair in front of the fire house with a cigarette."
Skaar has escorted Jenna, June and other Birkeli family members to the Fallen Firefighters Memorial at the State Capitol and to the Minnesota Firefighters Hall and Museum in northeast Minneapolis. The ax that Charlie used during the Old Dutch fire is part of its collection.
Jenna considers her random meeting with Skaar at the golf shop as "God's way of making a connection."
"I'd do anything to get to know my grandfather," she said. "And after that meeting and the relationship we formed, I feel so much closer to him."
Curt Brown's tales about Minnesota's history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at email@example.com. His latest book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: strib.mn/MN1918.