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After 22 years of service, Don Sanders retires from LVFD

April 21, 2019

LEAD — Don Sanders joined the Lead Volunteer Fire Department (LVFD) in 1997, when he was 60 years old, and now 22 years later, Sanders has decided to hang up his fire helmet.

In talking with Sanders, one can’t help but notice how prideful he is; not a boastful, “Look at me and what I’ve done,” sort of pride — he is literally filled with pride over the kind of fire department the LVFD has become.

“Fire departments never get done,” Sanders said. “But it speaks for itself, here it is, we’ve got people that can operate it, do a fantastic job of it. So personally, yes, I accomplished that goal: I helped establish the fantastic department that we have now. I didn’t know I had that goal when I started.”

Sanders joined the National Guard while he was still in high school in the eastern part of the state, and there he became interested in radio communications. As his interest and skill grew into a hobby, Sanders moved to Washington state, where he attended college. To put himself through college, Sanders took a job at a nearby mental institution doing general patient care. There he met his wife.

“That’s a social crack-up,” Sanders said with a laugh. “How’d you meet your wife?’ ‘Oh, we met in a mental institution.’”

Sanders explained that his would-be wife, Pat Sanders, worked across the hall from his office as a secretary.

In the late 1960s, Sanders and his wife to moved Lead to seek employment at the Homestake Gold Mine and to start a family.

“I always liked this town, so we ended up landing here,” he said. “I worked at Homestake. There I did everything.”

Through it all, Sanders’s interest in ham radio continued, and he’s one of the founding members of the Northern Hills Amateur Radio Club, which has installed multiple repeaters all over the Black Hills that have assisted in many search and rescue operations.

Sanders said that the potential of short wave radio to help in emergency situations has always been a main attraction for him.

“Of course that just dovetailed with (the LVFD),” he said.

So in 1997, at 60, Sanders joined the department as a communications officer. Sanders recalled his time with the department as a learning experience.

“Being a firefighter isn’t just squirting some water,” he said. “You have to be an engineer, a scientist, and archeologist, a psychologist; there’s just no one thing.”

Sanders recalled his early years with the department and how after Homestake closed, funds were so tight, there were talks of dissolving the fire department altogether.

“Some of the other guys said, ‘At 140 calls a year, this town needs a fire department in place,’” Sanders said. “There’s 140 needs every year, so that tells you something.”

Sanders remembered the formation of the Lead Fire Protection District and the hours spent toiling under hoods and dashboards trying to maintain the hand-me-down equipment and vehicles the department was forced to settle for. He said his technical knowledge of working with radios helped establish him as a jack-of-all-trades in the department.

“You got in there, you got your hands dirty, and you fixed it,” he said.

Through all the ups and downs, the hardships and the victories the department faced, Sanders said he was always driven by his desire to help people and the support of the like-minded men and women who shared that desire.

“We transitioned from maybe not even (having) a department, throw our hands up and quit, to what we’ve got now,” he said. “A super bunch of people, super bunch of guys.”

Sanders always knew the importance of the department to the community and always knew the importance of maintaining the right attitude in the face of adversity.

“I hope I always left a positive, ‘You can do it’ attitude,” he said.

Sanders said he had a mantra that would help him get through times when the going got tough: “Just show up,” he said. “That was my motto, ‘Just show up.’ Then (we) can figure it out.”

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