For over two decades, Gerry Franek’s leadership flame has burned brightly with the Northfield Area Fire & Rescue Service.
But when January 2022 draws to a close, Franek will have turned in his turnout gear and stepped aside from the job of fire chief, leaving a well-trained crew to pick up where he left off.
“It feels like the right time,” said Franek, who has served NAFRS for 36.5 years in total, the last 21 as fire chief.
“I’m not a spring chicken anymore, even though I think I am,” he said. “It’s time to pass the baton to the next generation, and we certainly have great people in our fire department that I am confident will do well, because they take pride and ownership in their work.”
He added, ”The company I’m leaving is like a second family to me, and I mean that with all my heart.”
Franek, 66, is a master electrician and electrical contractor by profession; he’s owned Franek Electric since 1996.
A 1973 Northfield High School graduate, Franek spent only one year out of the area while his wife, Kathryn, finished college. The couple raised three children — Benjamin, Lisa and Thomas — and Franek was positively influenced by neighbors to apply to NAFRS.
“I lived in a neighborhood where there were two firefighters, and they led me down the path to try out,” said Franek. Unlike many young kids, Franek had never harbored childhood dreams of being a firefighter.
“Those friends said it [firefighting] was a satisfying career and thought it would be a good fit for me, so I applied and that was the start of the story.”
Franek’s firefighting career ends with him as the leader of a 36-member force that, in August, welcomed its first two females.
“They are Northfield’s first female firefighters in our 149-year history,” said Franek. “We had a few other applicants in past years, but the physical part of the screening didn’t work out.
“We’re so happy to have these two as part of our department; they’re great representatives, and I’m so thankful they tried out and wanted to be on our team.”
Certainly firefighting — even in the part-time capacity NAFRS members serve — isn’t for everyone.
“It takes the right personality and is physically demanding,” said Franek. “And, of course, you have to have the mental ability to handle the stress, and the skill to manage the technical and medical parts of it.”
Franek mentioned that each firefighter must be trained as an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) and be able to operate the various pieces of equipment involved.
“You have to be adaptable, too, and have good people skills because a lot of times we see people on their lowest, worst days,” said Franek. “We take a lot of pride and satisfaction in the service we provide to our fellow residents, and in the end, someone on the team knows most of the people we deal with. We try to make things a little better, give a little comfort when something is going wrong and maybe offer a hug or a warm comment.”
That same combination of empathy and leadership is what First Assistant Fire Chief Tom Nelson will strive to emulate as interim fire chief for NAFRS during 2022.
Like Franek, Nelson is a lifelong Northfielder. At 56, he has served NAFRS for 33 years, also while raising his family with wife Marilyn and maintaining his career as director of engineering and facilities with American Public Media Group.
Nelson appreciates the faith Franek has in him and says it’s due to Franek’s example that he and other NAFRS members are ready to pick up where the retiring chief is leaving off.
“Gerry’s personality and leadership have taught me and other younger assistant chiefs and captains how to be a leader and how to treat people like you want to be treated,” said Nelson. “Gerry has modeled that, and that’s why a lot of us are ready for the handoff; Gerry has been developing all of us for years.”
Nelson notes that, on a handful of occasions, when Franek had to “bail him out” over the years, “it was always a learning experience, more of a ‘Let’s correct this and do what we need to do.’”
He added, “The chief always has our backs, and that’s the hallmark of a true leader.”
There is work to be done, Nelson admits, including for the joint powers board governing the NAFRS to determine whether the next fire chief will be full- or part-time.
“I agreed to help through this transition of figuring out the next steps,” said Nelson. “There’s plenty to do moving forward, and sometimes I ask myself, ‘What am I thinking?’ but we have a really good command staff. Both the firefighters and the board are engaged and excited. Change is tough, but we’re in a good spot.”
Franek takes pride in the addition to the Fifth Street fire hall that was completed a few years ago, as well as in the NAFRS’ record of action — in 2020, the company responded to 323 fire calls and 270 rescue calls.
But one fire call is destined to stand out in Franek’s nearly four-decade fire-fighting career.
“The Archer House fire was one of the most physically taxing and stressful for our team and the five surrounding fire departments that helped us,” said Franek. “I was on the scene the whole 24 hours, after a full work day, and at the end, I couldn’t even bend over to untie my shoes.
He continued, “It was grueling, taxing and emotional — very sad to lose that kind of building — but I was so thankful no one got hurt, and if there was any bright spot, it’s that it gave a lot of our younger people a chance to step into some leadership roles and hone their skills in certain segments of the fire.”
Classic Franek: expressing concern for his company’s well-being and gratitude that discipline, training and skill development paid off.
“I’ve just tried to support and guide them along the way, so they can succeed, because leaders are only as good as the people behind them,” said Franek. “The citizens of Northfield should be thankful for the great team of firefighters they have.”
Two attentive parents are prioritizing hope, love and Faith.
Faith is the 2-year-old daughter of MaryAnn and Shelia Jakes, Northfield residents since July. Born in October 2019 with Trisomy 21 — commonly known as Down syndrome — Faith is thriving, despite numerous health challenges. The help of skilled medical, therapeutic and educational professionals is key.
“She is a happy girl, but it’s been challenging for us and our family,” said Shelia, who grew up in Montgomery. Added MaryAnn, “Faith has had a feeding tube since she was born, due to swallowing difficulties. There are some delays with her milestones, so we talk about progress by inches — we take baby steps, not leaps.”
Shelia and MaryAnn, a California native, were introduced by mutual friends. They are deaf and hard of hearing, respectively.
“Faith is a CODA — the child of deaf adults,” said MaryAnn, who speaks both orally and with American Sign Language.
“When I sign to her, she understands me the same as she understands MaryAnn speaking,” said Shelia.
“She responds very well and is good at listening to noises,” said MaryAnn. “And she’s been going to Rochester since the day she was born.”
Journey to birth and beyond
When MaryAnn’s pregnancy was about three months along, the couple learned there was a 97% chance their child had Down syndrome.
“My wife and I were shocked, scared and uneducated about what that meant,” said MaryAnn. “Therefore, our emotions were running high.”
The Mayo maternal-fetal medicine specialist to whom they were referred, Dr. Mari Charisse Trinidad, explained to the Jakes what living with a child who has Down syndrome would mean.
“She said it would be a lot to handle and asked us, ‘Do you want to continue this pregnancy?’ Our answer was, ‘She is a gift from God,’ and we told everyone we were keeping this little girl,” said MaryAnn.
The entire pregnancy was an emotional roller coaster, according to MaryAnn, who said she prayed constantly that God would let Faith survive.
“The doctor told us she had a 50/50 chance with her heart defect, but Faith beat the odds,” said MaryAnn. “She’s a fighter, and if it weren’t for our doctors, she wouldn’t be here. She’s just a miracle.”
When Faith was born, the Jakes immediately fell in love with their daughter, who has already undergone a few surgeries (including for PDA, Patent Ductus Arteriosus) in her short lifetime.
“Every time she went into surgery, we asked the Lord to keep her going,” said MaryAnn.
Last January, Faith’s tonsils were removed, and earlier this month, she progressed to eating more often by mouth. Eventually, Faith will need to undergo the Glenn procedure. However, the family’s trips to Mayo for checkups have declined from every three months to every six months as Faith.
In Rochester, where Faith was hospitalized for over five months of her first year of life, the Ronald McDonald House and its welcoming staff were lifelines for the Jakes.
“The Ronald McDonald House helped so much,” said Shelia.
Added MaryAnn, “We had no idea about the house but soon it became like our second home. Danielle, a Mayo social worker, introduced us to it and now Nancy, from the house, always asks us how Faith is doing. We stop in to see them when we’re in town, and they are so proud of how we’re doing with Faith.”
Faith’s ongoing challenges fall into several categories, including feeding, walking, speaking, developing fine motor skills, battling low muscle tone and reaching developmental milestones. Her parents must also regularly monitor her oxygen levels. The Jakes moved to Northfield in part for access to its strong school, medical and therapeutic support systems, all of which work together to support Faith.
In an average week, the Jakes shepherd Faith to at least seven different appointments, including for general medical visits, nutrition checks, physical and occupational therapy and speech and swallowing therapy sessions.
“She has an important nutritional appointment coming up to see if she needs to continue with the feeding tube or if she can start just eating by mouth,” said MaryAnn. Her communication skills are improving as well. “She’s talking a lot for her age,” said MaryAnn, mentioning phrases Faith has mastered like “Let’s go in the car,” “Bye-bye,” “Come here” and “More.”
Faith has been learning to walk, using a walker, at Northfield Hospital + Clinics Rehabilitation Center. Without a doubt, the Jakes are extremely grateful for all the professionals who interact with Faith.
“Katie Waters has been instrumental in helping us in the schools,” said MaryAnn of Northfield Public Schools Early Childhood Special Education service coordinator Waters.
Waters praises the family’s efforts.
“Faith is the sweetest, smiliest little girl you’ll ever see,” said Waters. “She’s growing and changing all the time, and MaryAnn and Shelia are doing everything they can to make sure Faith reaches her highest potential.”
The pair are absolutely committed to doing everything within their power to help Faith succeed. In addition to the numerous doctors and therapists on Faith’s team, the Jakes are grateful to the ASL interpreters who enable them to more easily communicate with those team members, thus letting them understand Faith’s needs and what is at stake.
“All the interpreters have known us and Faith since she was born and have given us the access to communicate with all these people,” said MaryAnn. “We still have a medical journey ahead with Faith, as far as what she struggles with, and we are thankful to everyone who has been working with us and Faith. Without their ongoing help and support, we wouldn’t be where we are now. We can’t complain; we just have to be happy.”
In the apartment complex where the Jakes reside, Faith is practically a celebrity.
“Our neighbors here are all very supportive and say she’s so cute,” said MaryAnn. “She loves school [Early Childhood Family Education classes] and all her friends.”
Shelia said the family hasn’t attended any local churches yet due to Faith’s fragile health amid COVID concerns, but they look forward to doing so when that is less of a concern.
To an outsider, the daily obstacles the Jakes family must hurdle might seem insurmountable — but they don’t see it that way.
“Faith helps us feel hope and positivity,” said Shelia. “People think, ‘You’re deaf, you can’t do that,’ but look at our child; she is successful, she is growing and teaching us so much about the world through our experiences with her.”
Added MaryAnn, “There’s so much love; we’re just amazed at how much love she’s given us, and while she’s learning from everyone else, we’re learning from her.”
The Jakes are pleased to share their story, both so they can express their appreciation to the many helpers they’ve encountered and to dispel the belief that Down syndrome kids need pity. MaryAnn said the following is their favorite quote: “I am not just a Down syndrome child; I am a child that just happens to have Down syndrome. I have an infectious laugh and amazing eyes and always know when you need a hug. I am a gift as well all children are, but I’m a special gift to a set of mommies who love me unconditionally.”
Waters concurs. “MaryAnn and Shelia are doing a wonderful job as parents,” said Waters. “Faith is blessed to be able to call them mom and momma.”
Beth Kallestad’s last day as the city of Northfield’s first-ever program coordinator for climate action and diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) was Dec. 27.
Kallestad joined the city in April 2019. Her position, initially approved as a temporary two-year role fueled by reserve funds, has since moved into the permanent column within the city’s regular annual budget.
Northfield’s 2018-2020 Strategic Plan listed climate change impacts and DEI among its top six priorities; with Kallestad on the job, Northfield adopted a Climate Action Plan in November 2019 and a Racial Equity Action Plan in July 2020.
“I’ve been glad to help get things set up and in place,” said Kallestad. “Some programs are about ready to launch, and the city is set to move into its next phase of operations.”
She explained that climate action initiatives and DEI efforts previously touched all city departments but didn’t have a specific “home” in any one.
“As city leadership started to implement that 2018-20 plan, they realized they needed someone to coordinate the efforts,” said Kallestad.
Northfield City Administrator Ben Martig praised Kallestad’s effectiveness and contributions.
“In her time on the job, Beth has been highly productive,” said Martig. “She is well connected in the community, and we really appreciate the foundation she has laid here to advance equity and promote climate action. Beth has made a tremendous impact on our community and within the city organization.”
Earlier in December, Northfield received a Silver designation from SolSmart, an organization led by the Interstate Renewable Energy Council and the International City/County Management Association. This recognized Northfield’s bold steps to encourage solar energy growth and remove obstacles to solar development.
Of the SolSmart Silver designation — a distinction achieved by over 400 cities, counties and small towns since the program began in 2016 — Kallestad said, “Northfield has a goal of 100% carbon-free electricity for our community by 2030. To achieve that goal, there will need to be an increase in locally generated energy such as on-site solar.”
Kallestad added that the city of Northfield, in partnership with the Great Plains Institute of Minneapolis, had worked towards the SolSmart Silver designation for the past year.
“Their [Great Plains Institute] support is what made it possible for us to get it all done,” said Kallestad. “The process required us to do a review of our existing code language and helped us realize we were in a pretty good spot.”
Challenges to advancing solar growth locally exist, Kallestad said, primarily with regard to the interconnection process to Xcel Energy’s electric grid.
“Xcel is working on those things, and we’re hoping for some changes that will accelerate onsite solar options,” said Kallestad.
Both she and Martig mentioned the Northfield City Council has a sustainable building policy on its January agenda they hope will be adopted.
“We also have received a large grant from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency for tree-planting in 2022,” said Martig.
Kallestad is proud of her work with the Home Energy Squad, which does home assessments to help people identify which upgrades, improvements and/or behavior changes will result in lower energy consumption.
“We partnered with Growing Up Healthy, a local nonprofit, to share those options with residents of manufactured homes, and we’ve been able to help advance some weatherizing pieces for warmer, safer places to live,” said Kallestad.
Martig also cited the establishment of a new carbon reduction fund that Kallestad was instrumental in effecting.
“Next year, for the first time, we’ll have dollars set aside from franchise fees to create a sustainable funding source for continued investment in climate and carbon reduction goals,” said Martig. “Annually, we’ll have over $100,000 to fund those programs.”
He credits Kallestad with leadership in forging partnerships with the school district (think Healthy Communities Initiative) and creating equity initiatives across Northfield.
“She created an internal staff equity team to ensure equity and to help identify places where there might be implicit bias,” said Martig.
Finally, Kallestad interacted with Northfield’s largest energy consumers.
“In order for our climate action plan to work, it will take support from those large energy consumers, so I hope that will grow and become even stronger,” said Kallestad.
Kallestad formerly worked in watershed management and said she plans to return to that field at this point. Martig said Kallestad’s job is currently posted under the title “assistant to the city administrator.”
“It’s a special projects type of position to help advance our strategic plan and continue work on climate and equity-related work for the city,” said Martig.
Applications are open through Dec. 31. Martig said the city hopes to begin interviews in January and have a new person on the job by February or shortly thereafter.