By Ralph Echtinaw
About 100 people turned out Saturday for the retirement party of Ron Salladay, who served St. Louis residents for 42 years on the fire department.
Salladay was particularly known for running fire safety programs in St. Louis schools. In fact, Salladay occasionally encounters people in their 30s and 40s who remember him teaching fire safety when they were in the first grade.
Having graduated from St. Louis High School in 1973, Salladay trained to be a heating and cooling repairman and worked at that for a couple years before catching on at Dow Chemical in Midland, where he stayed until 2009.
The first St. Louis firefighter Salladay knew was former Chief Larry Parsons, who attended the St. Louis Church of Christ with Salladay and his wife Carol in the mid 1970s.
On a Saturday afternoon in 1976 Parsons, then a lieutenant, was on his way to a grass fire on Gruett Road when he saw the Salladays walking their son Stephen in the vicinity of Franklin and Hazel. “That’s when he said ‘We’re going to be short some guys. Can you jump on in and help us put this fire out?’ So I did that. I always considered that to be my first fire.” It was the first of many, as Salladay eventually responded to more than 2,000 fire alarms, said Fire Chief Rich Apps at the retirement party.
They successfully extinguished the grass fire, and Salladay officially joined the department on Nov. 25, 1976.
Would he have joined the fire department if not for that fateful day? “Maybe,” he said. But the encounter with Larry Parsons seemed almost like destiny. “I was very surprised,” he said. “It was almost like it was supposed to be.”
As a new firefighter in the late 1970s, Salladay got his first taste of the fire safety program for kids with former firefighter Rick Mailand. Then he did it with Darrell “Buzz” Brown several years. “I always pretty much planned the programs from then on,” he said.
The fire safety presentations happen once a year, almost always at Carrie Knause school with kids in grades kindergarten through second. “That was about all we could handle,” he said. “It was more important getting to the little ones because they turn into bigger ones.”
Apparently, it made a difference, as St. Louis didn’t seem to get as many calls for fires set by kids as other departments. “We didn’t have fires started by kids,” he said. “And a lot of department had those issues. (Kids) really do listen to you, even though you only have them for an hour.”
Not only that, but oftentimes kids who heard Salladay’s fire safety presentation would tell their parents what number to call (before 911 was a thing). “When there was a fire in the house some of these kids would remember the phone number and tell their parents what number to call. The kids would calmly tell their parents, “Call this number.’” In some cases, it was the children who placed the call, particularly if their parents were having a medical emergency.
Salladay enjoys working with kids so much that, after his retirement from Dow in 2009, he started work as a substitute para pro in St. Louis and Alma schools. Even now he works one or two days a week, helping kids with the school work, reading to them, “Whatever we need to do.”
“We’ve got some great great teachers in St. Louis,” Salladay said. “And we’ve got some great ones in Alma, too.”
Salladay is also the latest recipient of the Spirit of St. Louis award.
Now he joins a distinguished list of retired firefighters who served on the St. Louis department for 39 years or more. The others are Walter Case (50 years), Jerry Church (42 years) and Larry Parsons (39 years).