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Palos Fire Chief Graben retires

The conversation was still lively and the room still crowded with people at an open house as retiring Fire Chief Jim Graben spent his final hour on duty in Station 1 of the Palos Fire Protection District.

Then, a stark interruption, the computer-generated tones of a call coming over the radio in the station.

Graben instinctively reached for the two-way handset he still wore on his belt as the room got quiet, and he listened for the message.

A fire? A pin-in traffic accident on LaGrange Road? A medical emergency?

It was the voice of Jason Roseen of Southwest Central Dispatch, a few miles away in Palos Heights on College Drive, who was broadcasting to 22 different southwest suburban departments.

“Attention, all companies. The Palos Fire Protection District would like to congratulate Chief Jim Graben on his retirement.

“Chief Graben, we thank you for your 38 years of service, dedication and commitment to the Palos Fire Protection District and the citizens of Palos Park, Palos Heights and the surrounding communities.

“We wish you a long, happy and healthy retirement. Congratulations, chief.”

Jim Graben joined the Palos Fire Protection District as a teenager, only a year into legal driving age.

“I was 17,” he told The Regional News last year for a front-page story that was published in the May 24, 2017 edition. “I joined in June 1980, just out of my junior year in high school. It was an all-volunteer department for many years.”

Graben recalled how the chief at that time had to write notes for Graben when firefighting duty kept him away from classes at Sandburg High School.

Graben studied business at Moraine Valley Community College, went to the fire academy through the Palos Heights Fire Department, then received training as a paramedic. He became a full-time employee with the Palos Fire Protection District in 1987 and became chief in November, 2015.

And Friday, a crowded room of well-wishers were on hand to see him off, sharing laughter, hugs, handshakes and stories.

“I’m excited to move onto the next chapter,” he said. “I drove into work today—you’re going to get me emotional, because I haven’t been yet—and thought ‘Wow, this is my last day driving to work.’ It was pretty surreal.”

Among the many colleagues who dropped in to congratulate Graben on his retirement was Chief Paul Mackin of the North Palos Fire District.

“I’ve known Jim 24 years,” he said. “We work very closely together, the districts, we help each other out at fires, mutual aid and all of that.

“Jim is a friend, a good comrade,” said Mackin. “He’s got a cooperative spirit. He’s truly been an asset to our local fire service community.”

Palos Park Mayor John Mahoney also visited the firehouse to congratulate Graben.

“The chief was an outstanding contributor to our community, not the least of which was his contribution to the Boy Scouts,” Mahoney said.

“He helped many Eagle Scouts on their journey. I will personally miss him and wish him the best in his retirement.”

A long table in the lower level of Station 1, 8815 W. 123rd St., was filled with a retirement cake, memorabilia, a plaque-mounted fire axe and a framed proclamation honoring the chief for his service. The proclamation was signed by the trustees of the Palos Fire Protection District: Kevin C. McCurrie, Richard J. Nogal, Gene E. Adams, Todd Thielmann and Russell Miller.

Nancy Graben, the chief’s wife, stepped away from the crowd and reflected on the day.

“It’s kind of bittersweet,” she said. “It (the fire service) has been both of our lives. It’s what we’ve known all this time.”

Nancy met her future husband through her brother, one of the first paramedics with the department.

At 17 years of age, while attending the now-closed Mount Assisi Academy girls high school in Lemont, “I asked him to my prom and we’ve been together ever since,” she said with a smile.

The Grabens have four children: sons Kyle, Dave and Mark, and daughter, Anna, who all visited with their father at the open house, although not all at the same time.

“It’s pretty awesome,” said Kyle Graben. “I’m proud of my dad. He’s a big figure, put a lot of effort into the fire department. It’s nice to see it come to a good end for him.”

“It’s pretty exciting,” said David Graben. “I’m happy he’s able to retire, with many more years ahead of him.

Anna, the chief’s daughter, got momentarily choked up as she thought about her father.

“He’s an amazing dad, always there. I’m happy for him to retire so I can spend more time with him. He’s kind, thoughtful and caring,” she said.

Nick Agostinelli of the Palos Fire Protection District has been with the department since 1996 part-time and full-time since June of 1999.

“Jim’s a good friend of mine outside the firehouse, also,” he said.

Agostinelli said he and Graben share some pastimes, including shooting long guns and handguns, camping and riding motorcycles. Like others at the gathering, Agostinelli cited Graben’s long work with local scouts.

“Some people are born leaders, it’s natural,” he said. “He led his Boy Scout Troop and Cub Scout Pack, and some kids went all the way to Eagle Scout.”

Graben said he eventually intends to move to property he owns in Wyoming, a state he enjoys because of its beauty and its sparse population.

“It’s 10 miles outside of town,” he said of the property. “Wyoming is the least populated of all the states, with about six people per square mile. The mantra out there is you rely on yourself, your neighbors and the people you go to church with.”

As the open house wound down, it was time for Graben to head home. But instead of getting behind the wheel of his own car, he was driven home aboard Engine 6303 that had been sent over from Station 2.

He and Nancy climbed aboard and after a quick wave goodbye to well-wishers, he was on his way to retirement. After the short ride to the family home, he and Nancy were greeted by their children and a couple neighbors in the driveway, where the soon-to-be new chief, Michael McDonald, waited to shake Graben’s hand and give him a hug.

“I know the fire department will be in great hands,” Graben had said at the open house.

“There will be great things for them to do in the future, to continue the efforts that I’ve been a small part.”

With a large duffel bag in hand, Graben turned and walked away, up the long driveway toward his house.

The Regional News will have a profile of McDonald, the incoming chief, in the July 12, 2018 edition.

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