August 20, 2009 | 04:34 AM
The conversation finds its way into the red for the first time. This is when Robert Bettenhausen doesn't know what to say.
As he slinks forward in his recliner, his hands guide his words. His eyes say he wants to talk about it, but he honestly doesn't know how.
"God-given gifts allow me to do the job, but I also have a memory like an elephant," the 57-year fire department veteran said. "I remember all the things I'm not supposed to. I had all the calls. I'll never get rid of that. It never goes away. What do you say? ... You wake up at night."
Bettenhausen pauses a microsecond and moves on to his grandchildren, twins Tyler and James, and that paper smile reappears. The 77-year-old is able to bounce out of momentary distress and into permanent bliss because he has created so many good memories in his life. And now, it's time to concentrate on the good and hopefully, let the ever-burning bad smolder out.
Bettenhausen retired as Tinley Park chief fire marshall on Friday, Aug. 7, after 16 years on that job and 57 years of affiliation with the Tinley Park Fire Department.
The lifetime Tinley resident was born across from where Tinley Fire Station 1 now sits, and followed his brother and uncle into the TPFD in 1952. He was a volunteer, engineer, lieutenant and captain before taking the assistant chief job in 1961. He held that post for five years and took chief in 1966, a position he held for 37 years, until 1993.
The Village created the fire marshall position for Bettenhausen that year. The former chief supervised the operation of the department for the past 16 years.
"It's been a privilege and honor to be able to do that," he said. "Maybe I want to do something else.
"I'll be 78 in September. It makes you think how much time you got. I enjoyed it. I had a good run."
While detailing his trials at the TPFD, the fire legend constantly ascends from his chair to get another slice of history he has preserved, saying, "Hang on. Lemme show you something."
To say Bettenhausen has a trophy room is like saying Barack Obama lives in a house. Bettenhausen has an office, garage and basement full of plaques, pictures, trophies and certificates.
His resume reads like a grocery list ... for King Kong. It is four pages long and is only a "partial list." Bettenhausen won the Fire Chief's Volunteer Fire Chief of the Year award in 1997, a lifetime achievement award from the National Volunteer Fire Council and another one from Illinois Fire. He is part of a barely countable number of national and state fire boards and task forces.
But most important is what he has done for Tinley Park. Prior to Bettenhausen, volunteer fire departments were thought of as unprofessional clubs that occasionally fought fires.
Not on his watch.
"His attitude was always to conduct the fire department like a business," said Ken Dunn, current TPFD chief, who has known Bettenhausen for nearly 40 years. "He operated it that way. He expected people to do things the right way. He was a good man to work for."...continued on page 2