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Posted on Jul 11, 2016

George Citizen of the Year: Tony Liebelt

Enamored with all things George, Tony Liebelt is his hometown’s 2016 Citizen of the Year – much to his chagrin.
A lifelong resident of the town, Liebelt said he likes its small-town feel, likes living within sight of his parents’ house, and likes the climate and the potential for growth.
The accolades? Not so much.
“I tried to get out of it,” he said, recounting how he was taking a rest in the middle of a small break while fighting a fire, when he got the call that he had been chosen citizen of the year.
He argued a bit. (“I was actually going after (bleep) hole of the year,” he says.) Then he reasoned that once chosen, he’s “probably off the hook for it for the next 40 years or so,” and accepted the honor.
“I was too tired to fight too long,” he said.
The assistant chief of Grant County Fire District No. 3, Liebelt feels at home. Not only has he lived here his whole life, he also knows this area better than most, having worked loading hay in addition to his work on the fire crews.
“It gave me an opportunity to go down all the roads and to all the farms,” Liebelt said. “And learn all the ditch banks.”
The son of a firefighter, he also once worked alongside his son, a volunteer firefighter, who has since switched careers.
“Maybe it was his chief officer at the station that was the problem,” Liebelt quipped, referring to himself. “I’m not sure.”
Still, he relishes being one of the families at the fire district that has brought more than two generations to the staff.
Being in a small community, he has had to tend to neighbors and friends during emergencies. In addition, his wife works as a custodian at George Elementary School. (“She runs the school,” Liebelt joked. “Whoever controls the toilet paper controls the school.”) So it’s hard for Liebelt to go unnoticed.
It’s also hard for Liebelt, a firefighter for 28 years, to not notice other things. A drive around George tends to remind him of past emergencies. If he could take out one thing from the George landscape, that would be it. If he could put in one thing in George, it would be a better budget for the city of George with which to work.
The name, however, he wouldn’t change for a second. Not only is it unique, it’s a great icebreaker when on road trips, as is the name of the town’s founder.
“Founded by Charlie Brown,” he said. “You didn’t know that, did ya?”
As a child, Liebelt wanted to be a cowboy. Then he reached fourth grade and switched the goal to firefighter. To him, his ledger is full because he has been both.
“That’s sticking to the plan,” he said.
Liebelt gives credit to his wife, saying few people know what firefighters’ spouses go through, including the long worrisome waits, and credits his fire district for working as a team with those inside and outside the district.
“Probably one of the worst things that I have gone through here is a firefighter who we lost last year in a car wreck,” the citizen of the year said. “He was from George, not in our fire district or anything, but still, close to home. It was a difficult time for all of us.
On the other hand, the partnership with the lady running the school still goes strong, even if the tally doesn’t.
“We’ve been together 25 years,” he said before pausing. “Twenty-six, 27 – I dunno. I forgot a couple of years.”
Now that the grandchildren have arrived, the possibility of adding a fourth generation of Liebelt firefighters arises.
“Make sure you graduate from high school, study hard and start volunteering,” he said of what he would tell his grandchildren if they asked what they can do to someday battle the blazes.
Some departments, including GCFD3, even offer a residency program to train in-house volunteers to become career firefighters, he added.
One of the trainers, of course, is Liebelt, but that does not mean he’s ready to give up battling blazes just yet.
“I feel good, I still like fighting fires, I love wildland fires and I love this job,” he said. “I’m working for the same community I grew up in and that’s pretty cool.”


— By Sebastian Moraga,

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