With words, state chaplain provides comfort

Edward Gerdowsky

Devout and patriotic Edward “Ski” Gerdowsky has found the perfect way to blend his skills to serve fellow Hoosiers.

The Batesville resident has been the Indiana Volunteer Firefighter Association state chaplain since 2008, after being an associate state chaplain for about three years.

"I fill in when they call me to do a memorial service, retirement party or station dedication." If he can’t make it, one of about six associate chaplains located across Indiana assist with the event.

He reflects, "Usually if something comes up like a major emergency, a line-of-duty death, I’ll have to help out with that." He has attended perhaps five line-of-duty memorial services, "one of the worst" duties because of mourners' emotions.

Gerdowsky is there if a victim needs someone to talk to. If a family is displaced, he could be the one calling the Red Cross for aid. 

Although the St. Louis Catholic Church eucharistic minister hasn't responded to a disaster, associate chaplains helped families after the Henryville tornado and comforted a northern Indiana father who lost his wife and two children in a blaze.

Of his state duties, the chaplain reports, "I may not get a call for a couple of weeks, then all of a sudden I'm getting calls left and right." Most recently, he pronounced the prayer benediction at the Indiana Fallen Firefighters Service in Indianapolis Sept. 10, when two EMTS killed in the line of duty when a vehicle hit their ambulance en route to an Indianapolis emergency scene were remembered. "We invite the families down and they unveil the names and talk about the victims."

Gerdowsky also assists at the annual IVFA convention memorial service each June. A rose is placed on a cross for each IVFA member who died in the previous year. He says the opening prayer at quarterly IVFA meetings and lets attendees know how many events the chaplain attended. 

When asked which have been the most moving ceremonies, Gerdowsky looks down at the T-shirt he happens to be wearing. He said a prayer at the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation 9/11 Memorial Stair Climb in about 2012 when 2,000-3,000 ran up and down Lucas Oil Stadium stairs. The back of the shirt says "343 x 110 = never forget," which translates to 343 firefighters lost and 110 flights of stairs climbed on Sept. 11, 2001. The motto of the event, held around America, is "We climb because they climbed."

He also got teary helping clergy with the Michigan City funeral of his predecessor, just retired state chaplain Jerry Cohen, who trained the friendly man.

Locally, assisting at the funeral for the late Sunman resident Carl Bruns "was kind of rough. I knew Carl real well. We went to meetings together. He got me involved with IVFA ... (and) talked me into being the District 19 chaplain." 

"Carl was one of a kind." They met at the Morris Feed Mill fire around 1976. Bruns was in charge because he had a walkie-talkie. Gerdowsky, then a Batesville firefighter, recalled, "It was a bad fire. You could see the flames as you were going down 46 toward Morris. We had to worry about the propane tanks and grain silos that were there. Herman Artmire was fire chief back then."

Even though he got elected to be state chaplain for another year in 2015, the 67-year-old has decided, "It's time for me to step down" at the end of 2014. Gerdowsky will remain an associate chaplain for southeastern Indiana.

He was inspired to become a 40-year local rescuer when wife Pam got hurt during a motorized minibike accident "and the life squad came over and picked her up. I was impressed with the way they handled everything."

"I figured I’d give it a shot." Gerdowsky volunteered on Batesville Rescue 10, now Batesville EMS 10, for awhile, switching to the Batesville Fire and Rescue Department for 25-30 years.

He has been the safety officer. The U.S. Army Vietnam era veteran explains, "I stood back and watched the scene to make sure the roof wouldn’t come down on somebody or they wouldn’t get into electrical wires." As the accountability officer, he made sure "if you go out with 30 firemen, you come back with 30. You know where each one is at the time."

Gerdowsky got his start as chaplain in Batesville and still serves in that role even though he has retired from the department. While fortunately there have been no line-of-duty deaths in Batesville in recent years, he says prayers at meetings and other events and participates at services when retired firefighters, such as Leon Vinup, Earl Kreinhop and Jim Wintz, pass away.

Through the years, turnout gear has changed about four times. At first, "we had the rubber coats and the boots that came up” over knees. Now outfits are more fire retardant and reflective tape on them make firefighters better able to be seen at accident sites. 

When he joined the group, the attitude was, "'Want to be a fireman? Here’s your gear, get up on the fire truck.'" Now there is more in-depth training. "Instead of running inside (a potentially dangerous building), the tactic is surround and drown." 

Although holidays have been ruined by fire and accident calls, the reward for the volunteer has been "helping people out. The smallest thing you don’t think means anything" really does. Relatives have thanked rescuers who come out late at night when somebody’s sick and needs to be transported to the hospital.

The challenge of responding to blazes is "people not telling us what they have in their houses," like gunpowder. He recalls, "We watch out for one another" by using the buddy system inside of structures. "There’s no I in team."

Gerdowsky was deeply affected by the loss of firefighters on Sept. 11. His nephew on FDNY (Fire Department New York) Squad 1, Brooklyn, lost 12 co-workers that day. The Batesville man wasn't able to reach him until late that night, when he was relieved to learn the nephew wasn’t on duty during the devastation. 

"I was back there for the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11." After going to his nephew's squad first, they went to the one fire station that was hit by a falling World Trade Center. Up on the roof, Gerdowsky was asked to say a prayer. "That was kind of touching." Then he attended a memorial service at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. "I met firemen from England, Australia, China. There is always a big turnout for the firemen." When two kids read letters to their dads, who had perished, "you could see firemen reach up real quick and wipe tears away."

There is a feeling of solidarity among firefighters. When one dies on the job, "more of less, you lose a member of the family."

Gerdowsky and his wife are the parents of three sons: Chad, who is blind, lives with them and works at New Horizons Rehabilitation; Andy has followed in his dad's footsteps, volunteering for the Batesville Fire and Rescue Department; and Ron resides in Texas. They also have five grandchildren, four girls and a boy.

After 39 years at Hill-Rom with many jobs (plating, materials, metal fabricating for hospital beds, working on prototypes, upholstering and shipping), he is now retired. Best pastimes include yardwork, watching the History Channel, volunteering to drive the elderly and visiting friends in long-term care facilities.

Gerdowsky is justifiably proud of his firefighting years. "People can’t understand why we run into a building while everybody’s running out .... After Sept. 11 we get more recognition now, just like the military coming home. They get applauded and cheered, which is kind of nice."

Debbie Blank can be contacted at debbie.blank@batesvilleheraldtribune.com or 812-934-4343, Ext. 113. 

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