Every Saturday for the last 30 years, there was one place you could count on finding Rich Schmitz: at breakfast with a dozen or more of his colleagues in fire service and law enforcement.
The former chief of the Papillion Volunteer Fire Department, Schmitz, 68, died unexpectedly Thursday. Friend and fellow firefighter Russ Zeeb remembered Schmitz as a dedicated public servant, jokester and family man.
“Those Saturday breakfasts, he was always there,” Zeeb said. “He loved being around the guys, telling stories. He was funnier than hell. A lot of guys said he missed his calling — should have been a comedian.”
But he also had a serious side, Zeeb said.
Coming on the department in 1972, Schmitz served as chief of Papillion’s volunteer fire service for various tenures in the 1980s and 1990s. In October 2000, shortly after the department transitioned from an all-volunteer service to a paid one, Schmitz was named chief again and led the department through the sometimes bumpy early years of its professional existence.
“On the department, he was a great leader,” Zeeb said. “He could do budgets, he could do (public relations) work, along with fighting the fires. He led the department through a lot of tough times and was a major player when everything switched over to a paid department.”
When he retired from active duty with the department, Schmitz still maintained his links with the volunteer service’s nonprofit corporation, taking part in decisionmaking and also events helping to raise money for the fire department and charity organizations.
Zeeb said he and Schmitz were helping with a pancake feed benefit for a local charity two weeks ago.
“He didn’t let any grass grow under his feet after he retired,” Zeeb said. “His work always came with an eye to community service.”
During his time with the fire department, Schmitz also had a full-time job with Western Electric, later Avaya Communications and Lucent Technologies, where he was a safety supervisor.
Having grown up on a farm along Highway 370, Schmitz was a “good, old hometown Papillion boy,” Zeeb said, who always wanted to do the best he could in giving back to that hometown.
“He was very dedicated to his family and to Papillion,” he said.
Funeral services for Schmitz were held Tuesday morning at St. Columbkille Catholic Church in Papillion.
Schmitz is survived by his wife, Pam, son and daughter-in-law, Stephen and Shelley Schmitz of Papillion, son David Schmitz of Houston, and three grandchildren.