Longtime Evanston firefighter dies at 97

Evanston firefighter Willard Thiel Sr. died Jan. 4 of natural causes. He was 97.

Courtesy of Marilyn Knilans

Evanston firefighter Willard Thiel Sr. died Jan. 4 of natural causes. He was 97.

Sammy Caiola, Reporter

In his 36 years as an Evanston firefighter, Willard Thiel Sr. never missed a day of work.

Thiel died of natural causes at Glenbrook Hospital on Jan. 4. He was 97 years old.

Thiel was born in Evanston in 1915 and began working for Evanston Fire and Life Safety Services in 1941. He served for 36 years in the department, where he later became fire chief, before retiring to Northbrook. He remained a Northbrook resident until the last two months of his life. His daughter Marilyn Knilans, one of his three surviving children, said his mind was sharp even at the end.

“Given the fact that he was 97, he could talk about fires he had fought as far as what time of day it was, what trucks were there, who he worked with,” said Knilans, a 71-year-old Deerfield resident. “His memory of events of long ago was incredible. Nobody could match him.”

Knilans said in addition to firefighting, Thiel enjoyed working on cars, cooking and volunteering at the Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Evanston. In his later years, she said, he became adept with computers as a way to keep up with his children. He was well-loved as the “oldest student” at the Apple store, she said.

Thiel lived with his wife, Ruth Thiel, until she died in 2010. The two traveled all over the United States and Canada, attending conventions of the Optimist Club, an international association serving community youth, Knilans said.

Roger Simonson, member of the Optimist Club of Deerfield, said Willard Thiel Sr. was very active in the Deerfield club and would drive to 7 a.m. meetings, even at age 96. Simonson also said Thiel donated regularly to the Optimist International Foundation, which provides three scholarships to Illinois students each year.

“He never missed a meeting until he got sick at the end,” he said. “He was a really dynamo kind of guy. Really sharp. Just a great, great spirit … he’ll be greatly missed by the people who knew him.”

Thiel’s survivors include his daughters, Marilyn Knilans and Susan Pelletier; son, Willard M. Thiel; grandchildren, David, Jeffrey, Timothy Pelletier and Edward Thiel; and great-grandchildren, Delaney, Olivia, Benjamin and Elsa Pelletier. Church services for Thiel were held on Jan. 9, Knilans said.

“He was a mentor to many and a hero to many,” Knilans said. “And to me, he was a loving, caring, incredibly dedicated family man.”