Worth Fire Department volunteers reminisce as they prepare for 90th reunion

  • Written by By Kelly White

The Worth Fire Department opened its doors as a volunteer department in 1925.

To relive the volunteering days and mingle with former volunteers, the Worth Fire Department will be hosting its first-ever reunion from 2 to 6 p.m. Sunday, May 22 at Chieftain Irish Pub, 6906 W. 111th St., in Worth. A tour of the North Palos Fire House, formally the Worth Fire House, is planned for 1 p.m. to mark the 90th anniversary of the original fire department in Worth. This year would have marked the 91st year of the volunteer fire department.

The event is open to all former Worth Fire Department volunteers, current members of the North Palos Fire Protection District and to the general public. Residents and former volunteers are asked to bring an appetizer to share along with photos and memories.

Defined as a person who freely offers to take part in an enterprise or undertake a task, these volunteers helped to build up the original Worth community, and even the fire department itself, up until 1986. Volunteer was not a term coined lightly, as the men and woman of the Worth Fire Department took their jobs very seriously.

“Worth was known for having one of the best fire departments in the area during the 1970s and 1980s, crews worked non-stop, day and night shifts and weekend crews,” said Ed Palenik, a former Worth firefighter. “Worth is not a big city. It is a small town community with a great neighborhood, and people living here have always, and still want, what is best for their town.”

Palenik volunteered for the department from 1978 to 1981, a decision that was strongly influenced by his brother, Ken Palenik, who began his volunteer days at the Worth Fire Department in 1977 and is now the battalion chief at the Des Plaines Fire Department.

“Ken is my hero,” Palenik said. “He has always been a down to earth guy and you need that in a fire department – to stay humble. He always has and since then he has taken his career very far.”

The decision to volunteer at the department also led to Palenik meeting his now wife, Maggie Palenik, who volunteered at the department from 197 to 1980.

Maggie was the third female volunteer who stepped foot into the department but says that did not intimidate her.

“It was a little hard being a female among all other male volunteers,” Maggie said. “There were two other women who volunteered prior to me coming on to the department. However, they were gone before I started. Some men disapproved of a woman on staff at first but I never let that discourage me. I came from a family of first responders and I knew this was my calling. I truly believe I opened the door for other females to get in.”

While working at the department, Maggie broke her cardinal rule to never date anyone she worked with when she was invited to a wedding for another volunteer in the department in 1978. Not having a date, she decided to ask her now husband, Ed, to join her for the evening. The two were married in 1980. They have six children, still reside in Worth and will be celebrating their 36th wedding anniversary on June 7.

Ed continued his passion for firefighting after his volunteer days, taking a full-time position with the North Palos Fire Department in 1981, then working with the Bedford Park Fire Department in 1987 before he went on to the Naperville Fire Department, where he retired. He still works part-time as the EMS coordinator for the Evergreen Park Fire Department, a position he began in 1987 while still at the Bedford Park Fire Department.

The Paleniks are far from the only ones who are more than grateful for their days as volunteers on the Worth Fire Department.

“The Worth Fire Department will always hold a soft spot in my heart,” said Jack Lawton, a volunteer from 1975 to 2001.

Lawton decided to become a volunteer to help his community.

“I started on as a volunteer at the age of 18,” he said. “The options then were to get involved in a trade or get involved in the volunteer firefighting experience. A lot of the volunteers were young and living in town.”

The Worth Fire Department ceased operations at midnight on New Year’s Eve 2008, turning village fire protection over to the North Palos Fire Protection District.

The North Palos Fire Protection District absorbed the Worth Fire Department station, equipment and personnel. All three North Palos fire stations, located at 10629 S. Roberts Road in Palos Hills, 8913 W. 95th St. in Palos Hills and 7116 W. 111th St., in Worth, now serve and protects Worth, as well as Palos Hills and the district in its entirety.

Upon the absorption, some Worth Fire Department volunteers were taken on as full-time firefighters.

“When you are called in to serve, you play a very important role in the community,” said Colleen McElroy, Economic Development Liaison and trustee for the Village of Worth. “Even though they were only volunteers back then instead of paid employees, nothing has changed. It is all about commitment to your community.”