CHIPPEWA FALLS — John Neihart, who was Lake Hallie fire chief for 22 years, then became village president, died Sunday.
Neihart, 72, sent out an email to friends and family last week, alerting people that he was hospitalized, his liver and kidneys weren’t functioning well, and he didn’t think he was going home.
“Regardless, I want everyone to know that it has been a honor to know you all and work with you,” Neihart wrote.
Neihart joined the Chippewa Fire District in February 1988. At that time, he was only the second-ever Chippewa Fire District chief, after he replaced Ron Salter. Neihart worked for the South Dakota State Patrol before moving to the Chippewa Valley to become fire chief. He said he has been involved in firefighting for 51 years, starting as a 14-year-old. He retired as chief in 2010.
Neihart was Lake Hallie village president from 2011 to 2015, losing his seat to Village Board member Wayne Walkoviak.
John Andersen, the Chippewa Fire District’s deputy chief of prevention, worked alongside Neihart.
“He was capable of great generosity and a good mentor to young firefighters,” Andersen said. “John was very much a practical, down-to-earth, hands-on instructor.”
Andersen recalled a fire two decades ago in the town of Lafayette where a two-year-old girl died. Andersen said he believes there hasn’t been a fatality in a fire in Lafayette since then.
“John pulled (me and another firefighter) off the porch, covered in burning material, and threw us in the snow,” Andersen said. “It was probably the only time I saw him beside himself at a fire.”
Neihart was passionate about what he did, Andersen said.
“It was a challenge to him, slightly different than law enforcement,” Andersen said. “It was the ability to help people — it was his true love of people. He was able to do something for somebody.”
Andersen laughed as he talked about Neihart’s gruff outward appearance and how he liked to toy with media who called him for information. Andersen said that once people got to know Neihart, they saw his gruff appearance was a façade, and he enjoyed teasing reporters.
Walkoviak said Neihart will be missed.
“He was a pillar of the community,” Walkoviak said. “The village and the Fire District is forever indebted to him.”
State Rep. Kathy Bernier, who served on the Village Board, said Neihart was instrumental in the village getting its new $4.5 million fire station/village hall complex, which the public approved in November 2012.
“He had a dramatic impact on that,” Bernier said. “They got through all the bumps in the road. He was very instrumental in all of that.”
Bernier recalled Neihart as a man who worked hard on causes he believed in.
“He was a pretty passionate person. We bumped heads a lot,” she said with a laugh. “He was never one to hold grudges.”
Neihart was the right person to lead the Chippewa Fire District, Bernier said.
“He was passionate about firefighting and keeping the Fire District together,” she said.
Pete Lehmann, who serves on the Village Board, worked alongside Neihart for more than a decade. He said Neihart did an excellent job cultivating and growing a fire department that is almost entirely comprised of volunteers.
“John was committed to public service,” Lehmann said. “He had a pretty good-natured personality. The department is volunteers, so it takes a lot of understanding and caring and developing and hand-holding, so (volunteers) could see the value they were adding to the community.”
Lehmann agreed that Neihart’s legacy is his work on getting public approval of a referendum to build the new municipal building.
The public supported the measure in 2012, although a similar plan was shot down by voters in 2007. Neihart worked countless hours on developing ideas for what should be included in the new structure and selling the public on the reasons to vote for it.
“He was committed to bringing a referendum forward to the public to vote on,” Lehmann said. “The timing was right, and the residents approved it.”
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