When Joseph Casale was young, he had two very important role models. One was his grandfather, a Melrose Park police officer in the 1920s. The other was his Boy Scout leader, who was a firefighter. “I remember the scout leader came in and showed us all the knots and tools. I thought it was all so cool and interesting. He was a great guy, and I admired him like I did my grandfather.”
Casale decided to pursue the firefighter route. After high school, he went to Triton College and graduated in 1976 with his associates’ degree in fire science.
In 1984, Casale became a firefighter for the city of Melrose Park, the same city his grandfather had helped protect. “1984 was a very busy year. I fought a lot of fires and gained a lot of experience that first year,” he says. “When I started, we didn’t have the fire academy to gain skills, it was all on-the-job training.”
All that training came in handy in one particular instance. It was 1987, and the popular home appliance store, Polk Brothers, was engulfed in flames. “The fire burned for two days straight, and I was there almost the entire time,” he recalls. “It was an all wood building, and despite our efforts, we lost the whole place.”
In his 28 years on the job in Melrose Park, one of Casale’s proudest moments came in 2006, when he was presented with the Medal of Honor by the state fire marshal, an award that is given out to only one or two people a year. He earned the honor while teaching fire safety at Stevenson grade school. When one of the second-grade students looked out the window and saw smoke coming out of a house across the street from the school, Casale sprang into action.
“I was out of my seat immediately, and I grabbed one of the security police officers who was at the school at the time,” he explans. “We ran over there, broke down the door, and there was a young woman holding a baby trapped upstairs, since the fire had started downstairs. I fought through the smoke without my gear on and I grabbed both of them and hurried downstairs. We were out the door just in time, the house lit up soon after. By the time the fire department got there, the whole house was engulfed in flames.”
Another proud moment came in 1997, when Casale became the first official training instructor at the fire department. Before, there was no official title and it wasn’t a real position. “I enjoyed the aspect of teaching firefighters how to do new things,” Casale explains. “I would meet with 18 to 20 instructors in different towns and share methods for accomplishing different tasks. I really enjoyed passing down my knowledge. When it comes to being a firefighter, there’s no quiz, you have to be able to go out and do things right, especially under pressure.”
When asked about his retirement plans, he smiled and said he retires on Sunday, which was only five days away. However, his son was hired to be a firefighter in Melrose Park this May. “It’s sort of funny, he’s coming and I’m going,” he says. What words of wisdom did he offer his son? “I told him to do the best he can, and be safe. But above all, to stay sharp,” he reveals. “Things can change so fast and you can’t take anything for granted.”