Retired Evanston Fire Chief Greg Klaiber spent his entire 34-year professional career in Evanston. Recently, he announced his retirement from Northwestern’s Emergency Management department, and he will now spend his retirement in Colorado close to the children he and his wife, Nancy, reared here. All three children live near Denver. As he prepares to move away from Evanston for good, he has fond memories and a sense of accomplishment for the time spent here.
In conversation, Mr. Klaiber returns constantly to a theme – grateful satisfaction. His sentences are filled with words like “blessed,” “fortunate,” “satisfied,” “honored,” and “wonderful” or “incredible experience.” All was not roses, though, and he finds moving away from the City that he served immensely bittersweet.
Chief Klaiber spent more than just his professional life in this City. His family arrived in south Evanston from Long Island, N.Y. when Greg was just 5 years old. He attended Lincoln Elementary School, Nichols Middle School and Evanston Township High School.
“All of my roots are here,” he told the RoundTable in an interview conducted jointly by this reporter and Chute Middle Schooler Sabine Batza (see sidebar). Evanston had “so much to offer me when I grew up. And my children had the same,” he added.
“Speed-skating was a big part of my life. Baseball was a big part of my life,” Mr. Klaiber said of his youth. His speed-skating coach, Sanders “Sam” Hicks, had “the most impact on my life/career than anyone other than my mom and dad,” said Mr. Klaiber.
He went to the University of Illinois, where he met and married Nancy, who has been by his side ever since. He then moved on to pursue a master’s degree at Northeastern Illinois. In the midst of his master’s studies, a friend and fellow ETHS alum, Jack Mortell, “encouraged me to take the firefighters test. I took it, and did very well. Before I knew it, I was hired.”
Joining the department was “a tough decision, but the best – the second-best decision I ever made in my life,” he said.
“Nice correction,” said Sabine.
He joined the Evanston Fire Department in March 1985, “just three months before the last line-of-duty death” of an Evanston firefighter – “Marty Leoni – in a house fire.” Danger as well as the hours and physical demands caused him to ask, “Is this really what I want to do?” Ultimately, however the answer was yes. “I did. And it’s been an incredible experience.”
The Klaibers did not immediately move the family to Evanston, living in the northern suburbs for a time. In 1995, they returned permanently, buying a house and consciously deciding to raise their family in the same City that helped raise young Greg.
With young kids in the school system, Mr. Klaiber became more involved. Initially, he was a reading tutor for third-graders at Kingsley Elementary. “It was troubling to me that third-graders could not read at grade level, he said. “Some couldn’t do basic math.” He became part of a group, United Parents for Excellence in Schools, working to push the school system to insure everyone in third grade could read at grade level. The group looked around at each other when deciding who should take the next step, and settled on Mr. Klaiber.
He was elected to the District 65 School Board in 1999, taking his focus on third-grade reading levels with him. He received push-back from administrators and teachers who told him, “that’s not realistic,” he said. His reply: “Then what are we doing here?”
“It’s hard to reflect back” so many years ago and prove “there was some slight improvement in student performance over [my] four years” on the board. But he said “it was a wonderful experience. Many call it a thankless job, but it was not really thankless for me.” The hours in meetings, coupled with a firefighter’s schedule, became too much, though. “I was not at home for four years,” he said. At the end of his term, he decided “I just can’t do it.” He did not run for a second term.
Meanwhile, he was rising steadily through the EFD ranks. He was promoted to captain in 1999, the same year he was elected to the School Board. He became Division Chief in 2008, then Deputy Chief in 2009. He credits Mr. Mortell and Jerry McDermott, a fire captain, as mentors. He said Mr. McDermott had “incredible knowledge” and served as “a mentor in handling my career” and teaching about “life in the firehouse. Not only the profession, but life in general.” Fellow ETHS graduate and speed-skater Mr. Mortell served as an “older brother” figure.
In early 2010, Chief Alan Berkowsky announced his retirement. New City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz, started in fall 2009), promoted Deputy Chief Klaiber to Interim Chief. “It was a very trying experience,” said Mr. Klaiber. “We were going through contract negotiations” with the Firefighters’ Union at the time. From 1985 through 1999, Mr. Klaiber had been a part of the union, and suddenly he found himself on the other side of the table in very bitter contract talks.
“It was a balancing act the entire summer,” he said. Mr. Bobkiewicz laid off three firefighters effective July 31, 2010, because of stalled contract talks. Interim Chief Klaiber had to oversee their departure.
After a nationwide search and a grueling interview process, the City hired Mr. Kaliber as permanent chief on Aug. 4, 2010. The very next week, the union and the City reached an agreement, and “we rehired the three laid-off firefighters the next week.” All three are still with the department to this day, he said. “That was a tough summer,” he added.
“I was humbled to lead the Evanston Fire and Life Safety Department,” he said. “It was an incredible honor.” He was put in a position of “ultimate authority over the direction and vision of an entire department.” He described his leadership style as “a servant leader… listening and accepting ideas. If it was a good idea, we would do it – I did not care where it came from.”
With the honor came immense responsibility. “There was not an evening or night” he did not “sleep with a radio or phone next to the bed.” The phone could ring at any hour, any time, with someone on the other end of the line saying, “We have a situation going on.” Even on vacation, the cell phone was a constant, responding to texts or calls and weighing in on decisions. “You never really get a vacation,” he said. “It was a challenge for Nancy, too,” he said.
His biggest disappointment, he said, was “not having the department reflect the community we serve.” The department “is still working on that.” His emphasis on diversifying the department had deep roots. In 1997 or ’98, the City asked “every City employee, with each annual evaluation,” to sign a document acknowledging that the City has an affirmative-action policy. “Over 12 or 13 years, there were no black firefighters hired,” he said, so he determined “I’m not going to sign it.” Instead, he met with then Fifth Ward Alderman Joe Kent and pushed for a “much more concerted effort to have the department reflect our community.”
The person who had the greatest impact on Mr. Klaiber’s professional career, Sam Hicks, informed this position. Mr. Hicks retired in 1987 as Evanston’s Fire Chief, after a career of service stretching back to 1950 when he was hired as the first black firefighter.
“He experienced racism to a degree that is a shameful reflection on our community,” said Klaiber. “He had to eat in a different room, and use different plates and silver” from those used by white firefighters.
Mr. Hicks worked as an Evanston firefighter while coaching speed skating on the side. He would rise through the ranks within the EFD, eventually becoming the first black Fire Chief in Evanston. “He didn’t talk about it,” said Mr. Klaiber, or show bitterness or anger. “It’s a different level of humanity” and a “comment on his character,” he added.
Chief Klaiber pushed for a more diverse department, but “it didn’t go as I wanted it to.” He credits his successor, Fire Chief Brian Scott, who he said “has picked up the ball” and worked to “pass legislation downstate” to make diverse hiring more possible.
Initiatives at ETHS have been a part of the push. Mr. Klaiber said he wants Evanston residents to have the same experience he had – serving the community they grew up in and love.
In 2016, Chief Klaiber announced his retirement from the Evanston Fire Department and took a job with Northwestern as Director of Emergency Management. He called that decision “bittersweet,” just like his decision to leave Evanston. “There was no other job I was going to take,” he said. I was not going to become fire chief for any other department.” At the time, in 2016, he told the RoundTable that before the Northwestern job came open he planned to work three more years as Evanston’s Fire Chief then retire and move to Colorado.
In his three-plus years with Northwestern, Mr. Klaiber said he was most proud of the Memorandum of Understanding signed by the City and Northwestern providing for joint use of Northwestern’s emergency operations center. “I don’t think there’s another example of joint use agreements between a city and a university,” he said. Rather than have two entities responding to emergencies from two different centers, the MOU puts all players in one place should an emergency strike.
Other aspects of the NU job, however, were not as rewarding as the MOU. “It was a bit of a challenge the first year,” he said, citing the need to “adapt and learn and transition to the world of higher education.” It was also a struggle to have a boss again. “I was not in charge any more, not running the whole show.” Instead, he was in charge of just one of four divisions of the Northwestern public safety department.
And then it was time to leave. Mr. Klaiber announced his retirement in September, effective Nov.1.
“It is very humbling and rewarding to leave on such good terms,” he said. He and Nancy have been traveling to Colorado regularly over the years. Now, all three of their grown children live in and around Denver. After much thought, the Klaibers bought a home in the Golden area. He plans to ski every week, bike, hike, golf and just enjoy the outdoors. “The beauty of the area is unparalleled,” he said. “I feel so blessed and fortunate” to be able to afford to live in such a place.
Still, he will be back. He and Nancy plan to spend three or four weeks every summer in Evanston, probably around the 4th of July. Look for them then at some of their favorite haunts – SPACE, Union, Campagnola, Sketchbook, Temperance and Bluestone, to name a few, he said.
“Evanston’s been a part of my entire life,” he said in closing. “I love this community and all that it has to offer. We’re not perfect – no community is. There are a handful of people in this community that, really, nothing is right for them,” he added, pointing to all the positive improvements he has seen over the years. As he prepares to leave, he concluded: “Evanston is a part of who I am. We are Evanstonians through and through.”
Greg Klaiber, retired Chief of the Evanston Fire Department and currently the Director of Emergency Management, is leaving in a couple of days to live in Golden, Col.
I was in second grade when I first interviewed him, publishing an article in this paper. Now that he is leaving, I decided to interview him one more time.
Back in second grade I asked him questions about sliding down poles and dogs. I am currently in seventh grade and my questions are a little different.
I asked why he was moving, and I learned there were a couple of reasons. He and his wife had been thinking about it for seven or eight years now, and they finally decided it was time. He is very active and loves to ski, run and hike along with his wife. His kids also moved to Colorado and live in the area where they are moving.
I asked him what it felt like moving away from the place he grew up, and he said that it is hard, because all of his roots are here. He went to school here and he got his first job here and Evanston is just a great community. But he is going to a very beautiful place with a lot of amazing sights to see and mountains to ski down.
I asked why he wanted to work in the Fire Department and his response was a little different from what I had expected. He said that he had never wanted the job growing up. When he was getting his master’s degree, a friend of his asked him to try to take the test to get in. But when he got the opportunity to be in the Fire Department, he had to choose between a master’s degree and the Fire Department. He chose the Fire Department. He also said choosing to join the Fire Department was the second best decision of his life.
I asked, “How did becoming Fire Chief impact your life?” He described it as humbling. He said it was humbling to lead an entire department and be the authority leading these people. He said that he wanted to lead fairly and he was a servant leader and he listened to everyone’s opinion.
I asked what his most rewarding moment was and he said, “Leaving any first-response scene where everyone is okay and everything is cleared up.” The grateful words that people will say are also really rewarding, he said.
My final question was, “Are you satisfied with the way you impacted the people around you? He responded, “Yes, because it is an especially rewarding experience when you are leaving a place where you have helped people and the rewarding words they say.”
I found that the interview with Chief Klaiber was a great opportunity for me to learn more about a man who helped so many people in this City as Fire Chief.
I learned a lot about him while writing this article, and I hope that I helped readers learn about him, too.
-- Sabine Batza