- Associated Press - Sunday, November 2, 2014

HOMER, Ill. (AP) - When he was the age that many kids are when they dream of riding in a fire truck and putting out fires, Don Happ dreamed of getting under the hood of a car.

“I just liked working on cars - fast cars,” said Happ, who in his teens found a 1972 Oldsmobile 442 near Broadlands, bought it for $300 and spent the next four years restoring it from top to bottom.

The Philo native started working as a mechanic at his uncle’s automotive-repair business outside of Homer. He eventually settled in the village and opened his own business, Don’s Auto Center.

Happ got to know a lot of the local firefighters when he serviced their cars. It didn’t take long before one of them asked him to join the volunteer department.

“I said no for three years,” recalled Happ, who was newly married and trying to get his business off the ground. “I didn’t have the time. And at that time, I didn’t know I had an interest.”

Then, in May 1987, Happ changed his mind. Unlike many of the volunteers who worked out-of-town, Happ’s shop sat across the street from the old fire station. He figured he would be able to respond to calls more quickly than some.

“It took some time to learn the trucks and the district, but I really enjoyed it,” Happ said, adding that hasn’t changed after 28 years on the department, the last 20 as chief.

“I like the brotherhood,” continued Happ, who’s serving his third year as president of the Champaign County Fire Chief’s Association. “We’re like a big family. And I really enjoy helping people and trying to make their worst day a little better.”

The Homer district encompasses 52 square miles in southeastern Champaign County and southwestern Vermilion County. It has about 2,500 residents.

Currently, there are 28 volunteers, including five women. They average about 145 calls a year - 100 medical and the rest fire or mutual aid.

Within in a year on the department, Happ became the maintenance officer. His work experience came in handy when vehicles needed repairs.

“The brakes, the engine, the transmission on a fire truck are similar (to other vehicles). They’re just a lot bigger,” Happ said.

After four years, Happ was named assistant fire chief. Four years later, then-Chief Chuck Benner decided to retire.

“He thought it was my turn to serve,” recalled Happ, who was honored to step up.

“You couldn’t ask for a better chief,” Mike Johnson said of Happ, one of two who recommended Johnson to the department 22 years ago.

“Don is extremely calm and professional” at an incident, be it a medical call or a working fire, said Johnson, who serves as a district trustee. “We’ve run mutual aid calls where, when he got on the scene, and the chief of the other department was out of town, they asked Don to take over as the commander. That’s how well-respected he is.”

Johnson and Homer Mayor Ray Cunningham credited Happ with bringing the department into the 21st century. Under his leadership, the department - whose members are trained as first responders and/or paramedics - took medical over calls from other ambulance companies.

Happ helped bring in two new fire trucks, a pumper, heavy and small rescue vehicles and other equipment. He also won a grant to help build a new, modern fire station at 501 N. Main St. 11 years ago - without raising taxes - and expand Station 2, at 102 W. Mary St., among other things.

Johnson added there are many other things that Happ does behind the scenes. After a retired Champaign firefighter had a stroke, a number of full-time and volunteer firefighters came together to put a new roof on the man’s house. The job was completed in one day.

“Don was instrumental in getting the volunteer forces there to help,” Johnson recalled.

And when library officials wanted to move a few hundred books out of the building for a garage sale last weekend, they called Happ.

“He got on the phone and made a dozen calls, and they got the books hauled out of there,” Johnson said.

“He’s not just a driving force for the fire department, but for the community,” Cunningham added. “He’s a business leader. He’s a community leader. He just never says no to anything he feels that the village needs.”

Happ said he plans to remain on the Homer department for about five more years, when he hopes someone else will be ready to take over as Chief. Meanwhile, one of the things hopes to do is recruit some new, younger members.

“The average age of our department is going up,” he said, putting it at about 45. “It’s harder to get volunteers than it has ever been before. We’ve had an Explorer’s program, for kids 14 to 18, for about four years now. They come to all of our trainings (held on Tuesdays). We hope that will interest some of them into joining.”

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Source: The (Champaign) News-Gazette, https://bit.ly/1ngyYmJ

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Information from: The News-Gazette, https://www.news-gazette.com

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