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No one at the Evanston Fire Department quite lived and preached fire prevention the way Tom Linkowski did. He was second in command in fire prevention when I started covering the department. I had a standing appointment to meet him every week at Station 2 on Madison to go over the reports. He’d go through the papers, find an incident which illustrated some salient point about fire prevention, and then work on me to do a story. He didn’t fear the press or issue releases such as in recent years that have the basic details of a fire or emergency but are devoid of the drama that unfolded at a scene. He’d call you at home or have someone else do it making sure you were at the scene of a major fire.
Chief Linkowski would treat a fire as a teaching lesson. He would hustle you past investigators still combing through the debris after a major fire, such as at the then-named Orrington Hotel during that era, making sure you understood the fire path and saw the double core doors the hotel had installed — probably under the threat of court order — and how they had stopped the advance of the fire.
He worked under Division Chief Robert Schumer, a big, sometimes silent man who, in retirement, you would sometimes see sitting at the counter of the old Main Street Café , a few blocks away from Station 2, staring out over a cup of coffee. Chief Schumer set high standards, though.
Hard to believe now, but back then many of the buildings on the Northwestern campus did not have sprinkler systems, and the Bureau under Schumer had to do the nitty-gritty work of getting the University people to spend the money to put them in.
The people in the bureau included Kevin Kelly and Alan Berkowsky, who learned well and went on to become Fire Chief of Evanston in 2004 and then Chief of the Winnetka Fire Department.
I know Chief Linkowski had some personal tragedy in his life and somehow put it aside and brought this great energy to fire prevention. I hadn’t thought about this recently until I saw the notice of his death, but I remember I won some major fire reporting award from the state Fire Prevention Bureau. I remember going to the awards luncheon with Chief Linkowski, probably after considerable urging from him, and how he couldn’t have been prouder when the award was announced. I was a little embarrassed, really, to even accept it because let’s face it, it was all him, all Chief Linkowski’s urging and cajoling in the name of fire prevention.
We talked about meeting up in Florida after he moved there after leaving the Department, but it never happened. I really liked the guy. He was loquacious and outgoing and a real advocate for the important work the Department did.
Rest In Peace, Chief. You will be very much missed.