Merlyn Irlbeck’s family surprised him with presentation of a plaque honoring his 50 years of service on the Manning Fire Department. The Irlbeck family has achieved three generations on the department. Along with Merlyn, (second from right) are his son Brett (front, left) and grandson Jeremia Macumber (front, right).
Merlyn Irlbeck’s family surprised him with presentation of a plaque honoring his 50 years of service on the Manning Fire Department. The Irlbeck family has achieved three generations on the department. Along with Merlyn, (second from right) are his son Brett (front, left) and grandson Jeremia Macumber (front, right).
February 27, 2013

When he suited up for the first time with the Manning Volunteer Fire Department, Merlyn Irlbeck had a helmet, boots that went up to his knees and a raincoat that stopped 2 inches above his boots.

"So the water ran into my boots," Irlbeck recalls.

While his first uniform may not have been a great fit, service on the fire department has fit Irlbeck just fine.

He joined the Manning department in 1963 and has been answering fire and accident calls, teaching fire safety, and doing whatever else he can for the department ever since.

Thanking him for his 50 years of service, fellow firefighters recently awarded Irlbeck a plaque made with a full-size fire ax.

Making the moment especially emotional, though, firefighters turned it into a surprise at their annual banquet at the American Legion Hall. While Irlbeck's attention was distracted elsewhere in the room in conversation, his wife, children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren slipped into the room.

The surprise had been in the works for several weeks. "Nobody had said a word," Irlbeck says.

Irlbeck's son Brett describes his dad's reaction, "It was beyond shock. He didn't know we were there, then Brad Kusel told him to turn around, and we were standing there with that plaque. I thought for a second he was going to faint."

Brett adds, "He's so proud of (the plaque), he has to show it to everybody. He doesn't want to put it on the wall yet."

Indeed, Merlyn turned a friendly suggestion that he join the department into five decades of exemplary service.

That suggestion came from Ron Hiatt, manager at the former Thrifty Food grocery downtown, where Merlyn's wife, Beverly, was a clerk.

"He had a blank check, and he had me write my name on the back of it that I wanted to join the Manning Fire Department, so I did," Irlbeck says. "He said it was a $2 fee to join. I gave him $2, and that's how I got in."

He adds, "It was just one of those spur-of-the-moment things."

That $2 has paid off handsomely both for Irlbeck and the community.

His service on the department includes seven years as chief plus a number of years as a trustee. He and fellow firefighters have responded to all kinds of calls - house, factory, farm field and tractor fires; grain-bin accidents; and vehicle crashes.

During his service on the department, Irlbeck has worked at a former Phillips 66 station, AGP soybean-processing plant (he retired after 20 years as supervisor there) and his own tire-repair business.

"You can be so busy that you can't do another thing," Irlbeck says, "but if a fire call comes in, you go."

"You have to be flexible," he adds. "You never know when a fire call will come in."

For any community, Irlbeck says, it's important to have a strong fire department. The Manning department not only responds to emergencies, but members also volunteer time to help with numerous community events.

The department currently has 32 members and four prospects are serving probationary periods. If they're approved, the department will be up to full force.

Irlbeck has had a big influence on some of the current members joining the department - such as son Brett and grandson Jeremia Macumber.

Brett, 50, says, "I rode along with him on some fires when I was a kid. I'd be with him out doing service work, fixing a tire, and a call would come. It was kind of exciting. As a kid you remember that stuff, and the respect for your dad and what he was doing."

His dad's service indeed inspired him, says Brett, who's served on the department 14 years and is a fire service training drill instructor the state of Iowa.

Brett says his dad has adapted to dramatic changes in equipment and procedures, and he jokes, "It was probably the bucket brigade when he started."

"He's very knowledgeable about the things he's seen and how to handle things," Brett says of his dad.

In fact, on the acreage on the southeast side of Manning where Merlyn and Beverly live, he's stashed away the 1963 GMC fire truck he bought from the city for $1 when it was taken out of service. The city had bought the truck new about the same time Merlyn joined the department. Now he plans to make it a centerpiece in his collection of old equipment he plans to put on display in a fire-station museum someday.

Brett says of his dad's dedication to the Manning fire department, "It's a lot of time, but it's something he's enjoyed doing for many, many years. He's a very giving person. He'd rather give than receive. That's why we wanted to give him this award. That's something that's very hard to accomplish."

Current fire chief Bob Barsby says he believes Merlyn is also driven by the family three-generation accomplishment. Merlyn's grandson Macumber, 30, son of Brenda and Terry Sterk of Manning and Dave Macumber of Manilla, completed his fire-department probationary period last September.

Macumber says his grandfather inspired his decision to join the department.

"I've always been interested in it," he says, "and he definitely played a huge part in me wanting to become a member. Now I regret not doing it sooner.

"I spent a lot of my childhood with him and seeing how selfless he is and how he just loves helping other people and doesn't want anything in return. It was a lot of fun growing up with him. He's one of the best grandpas I could ever ask for."

Macumber, who's in charge of assembly at Puck Implement Enterprises, says Merlyn "always has a million projects going on," such as helping with kids' water fights at Manning's Kinderfest community celebration and putting up tens of thousands of lights and scores of other decorations in the annual Christmas display on his acreage.

Fire chief Barsby recalls as a youth taking catechism lessons led by Irlbeck at Sacred Heart Catholic Church and the fascination when Irlbeck had to leave class suddenly for a fire call.

"Merlyn's been a role model for younger members. He's now kind of a father figure," Barsby says.

Time has marched on, as Irlbeck signed up Barsby to join the department 22 years ago, and Barsby served as assistant chief for 15 years before becoming chief last November.

For Irlbeck, through his time on the fire department he's enjoyed the friendship of his fellow firefighters along with the opportunity to serve the community.

He explains simply, "You're helping somebody out, and they don't have to pay you."

His son Brett observes, "I think he loves the camaraderie with the guys on the department. It's just a close-knit bunch of guys who look out for each other and help each other. It's just pure love of what he's doing."

Today, Irlbeck, 77, still drives a fire truck and primarily serves as a historian for calls, taking photos at the scenes. The department averages 30-35 calls a year, according to Barsby.

He's well-known for hosting fourth-graders at the fire station each year for fire-safety lessons. "He just loves to do that. That's his thing," Barsby says. In fact, Irlbeck has enhanced the lessons by creating his own models to simulate a house fire and elevator explosion.

Irlbeck looks forward to teaching fire safety for years to come. After 50 years on the Manning department, he isn't ready to put away the helmet, boots and coat.

"I plan to stay a member forever, whatever it takes," he says.