Apparatus supervisor, mechanic will retire after 37 years

Ralph Nathanson, the fire department’s apparatus supervisor and mechanic for the past four decades, checked out the compression controls on a Jaws of Life unit packed on one of the rescue trucks and reflected on how 37 years is a long time to be on call 24/7.

“That’s why I’ve decided to retire,” said Nathanson, 63, who lives in Bethel.

The department will honor him on Dec. 28 with a brunch at the firehouse. His last day of work is Dec. 30, meaning he’ll begin the new year with a new phase of life.

“I’m grateful to the residents of Wilton for the opportunity to serve them,” said Nathanson, who joined the department at the age of 26 with a diploma from Bethel High School and seven years’ experience working in a water treatment plant in Danbury.

He had a gift for fixing things, and learned from some great teachers.

“I’ve had the privilege to work for some great chiefs, awesome fire officers and firefighters,” he said.

He said that when he began his career, the department was very small and operated with three firefighters out of an old barn. Now there are six on-duty firefighters, and the fire station is three times the size of the one he began in. But still there never seems to be enough room, he said. “We are outgrowing the building that was supposed to be big enough for us,” he said.

The Boston, Mass., native, who grew up in Bethel, plans to spend lots of time with wife Cheryl, three daughters, two stepsons, two great-stepsons, and five grandchildren.

“It’s getting time,” he said, adding that he plans to spend long summers at his vacation home in Maine.

His job has involved mostly routine maintenance of mechanical components like brakes and tires. Big trouble, like damaged engines and broken transmissions, has been rare over the past four decades. It has happened only once or twice.

The biggest challenge today is to keep the fire engines spotlessly clean, because the road salts used by Public Works crews to combat winter snow are highly corrosive to the vehicles, which cost anywhere from $600,000 for a pumper to more than $1 million for a ladder truck.

The corrosive material the trucks are exposed to nowadays means their working life is 10 years, perhaps 15 years at the most, compared with 25 or 30 years in previous decades, when corrosive materials were not used on local roads.

Another challenge of the modern fire truck is how many electronic components there are.

“Fire trucks today are so complex that even the manufacturers sometimes have difficulty trying to figure out electronic issues,” he said.

Nathanson is also the department’s bagpiper, who performs on the traditional Scottish and Irish instrument at ceremonies and funerals, among other solemn occasions.

“He is known for his fine tones and ability to play any song. He will be missed around the firehouse but deserves the very best in his retirement. I know I speak for all of us when I say that we wish him a long, happy and healthy retirement,”  said Chief Ronald E. Kanterman.

Kanterman credited Nathanson with keeping the fleet running well for many years. “He created relationships with vendors and managed to get the best price for everything, saving the town thousands over the years. His personality in combination with this mechanical talent was a winning combination for the town and the fire department,” Kanterman said. “If he said “no” or “I can’t” it revolved around safety, and you can probably count on one hand the times he actually said those things. Ralph did what he did every day, with a smile, and gave it all he had.”

There are also countless town employee who owe Nathanson a debt of gratitude, as he helped many of them who couldn’t start their cars to get home after a day’s work, Kanterman said, adding that Nathanson often stayed well after his own work shift just to help someone in need. “Again, all with a smile.”

The smile came easy. “I can honestly say I love coming to work every day,” Nathanson said. “I’ll

miss the guys, I’ll miss the firefighters. They’re a great bunch of guys.”