Ralph Hengel’s last big call as a firefighter came in January.
Ralph Hengel, of Groveland, retired last month from 10 years as a volunteer firefighter. AMY ALONZO ROZAK/THE UNION DEMOCRAT
It was a fire off Ponderosa Way near Groveland, and the volunteer with the Groveland Fire Department responded quickly with a crew. Hengel said the terrain was so steep, it was difficult to physically do what he needed to do on the job.
That was when the 66-year-old said it’s time to let the younger guys do the job.
“You get to a certain point in your life where you just can’t go hard and you can’t go fast,” he said.
Hengel last month wrapped up 10 years of volunteer service for the local department, which represented only one aspect of an active lifestyle. And while he’s had to slow down a bit from fighting fires and running races, the former furniture repairman stays active helping friends and neighbors with projects, keeping fit and improving his property east of Groveland.
“I’ve never considered myself special,” he said. “I consider myself a team player. I don’t like to let people down. If you cannot do something, don’t do it.”
Hengel did a lot during his 10 years volunteering with the Groveland department, during a time when fire chiefs are finding it harder to recruit volunteers. He decided to join up not long after Sept. 11, 2001, right around the time he moved to Tuolumne County.
He had considered volunteering at the local department where he previously lived in San Ramon, but they didn’t want volunteers at the time, he said.
“I thought, why don’t I do that for somebody else while I’m still physically able to do it,” Hengel said.
Not a lot of people his age at the time could. In his mid-50s, Hengel said the fire academy he applied to wasn’t going to let him in at first because of his age. But Hengel wasn’t an ordinary 50-something. An avid runner, he’d competed in numerous long-distance foot races. He taught extreme aerobics classes before they were popular.
“I invited them to run around the block with me,” he said. “Physical fitness has always been very important to me.”
Hengel moved to Groveland after a career working for JC Penney repairing and restoring furniture. A self-described “blue collar guy,” he started with the company just “happy driving forklifts.”
During his time with the company, he repaired a variety of types and styles of furniture and learned woodworking and restoration techniques.
He learned about the Groveland area after seeing a piece of property owned by a friend. Hengel said he fell in love with the area and bought property to build a cabin. He later built the home where he lives today, slowly adding property improvements.
Even after retirement, Hengel couldn’t stop his work with wood and furniture. He restored a number of pieces for himself, and eventually did a job for a neighbor. Then another friend asked, then another, and he became known around town.
“If somebody asks me to do something, I’ll do it,” he said. “It’s very satisfying to take an ugly piece of furniture and make it look nice.”
One of his biggest projects was a set of custom lockers at the Groveland fire house. He also did some work on signs, including some restoration on the Groveland fire house sign and building the one that stands in front of his long driveway.
Hengel also got into fitness while living in the Bay Area, and he said he started teaching day aerobics classes after going through a divorce. These weren’t your step aerobics classes, either. His students would do exercises like burpees, a whole-body workout where you quickly stand, drop to a face-down position with your hands on the ground, kick your feet back and then return back to a stand.
He compared his classes, conducted in the 1980s and 1990s, to the extreme, boot camp-style fitness classes popular today.
He’s also been a long-time runner, with a number of races under his belt.
“It’s so nice to come home from work and put on a pair of running shoes and run for five or six miles,” said Hengel, who has now transitioned to the bicycle for fitness because it’s easier on the body.
So when he volunteered as a firefighter, he knew he could do it even though he was older than others in the academy.
That doesn’t mean there weren’t challenges. Hengel said he almost didn’t complete the program, as the EMT training was especially challenging, though kept at it.
And many of the emergency calls weren’t easy, either. Hengel described one from early in his tenure that still sticks with him, when three young women from England got into a serious head-on collision while on Highway 120. They were driving on the wrong side of the road, likely because they were used to that side back home, he said.
The scene was so intense, Hengel said he was acutely focused on the tasks directly in front of him.
“They loaded a helicopter on the road, and I didn’t even know it,” he said.
Hengel was formally recognized last month by his department for his 10 years of volunteer service. And while he’s not going to be traversing ravines on emergency calls today, he’s still climbing around his immaculate property improving the area.
He said he feels at home on his John Deere tractor, which helps him clear fire hazards like brush and manzanitas around his property.
It’s work that he says suits him, since he describes himself as someone who’s not comfortable in urban or suburban surroundings but in a rural setting like the one he’s in.
“I can’t just sit inside,” Hengel said.