STILLWATER, Minn. — After 51 years of fighting fires in Stillwater, Tim “T.J.” Bell is hanging up his helmet.
Bell started working for the Stillwater Fire Department on Oct. 7, 1969, and was believed to be the longest-tenured volunteer firefighter in Minnesota. On Tuesday, Jan. 5, he turned in his equipment and collected the last of his personal items.
“I’m going to miss it, of course,” said Bell, 72. “This is a fun town to live in and work in. I really enjoyed my career, but everything comes to an end.”
Bell, whose official last day was New Year’s Eve, was honored last week with a surprise drive-by retirement celebration outside the fire department on Maryknoll Drive. The parade included fire trucks from Mahtomedi, Lake Elmo and Bayport.
Bell, who retired as a paid, on-call firefighter/engineer, served as a captain of the volunteer crew for 16 years and as its assistant chief for 19 years. He went back to being a firefighter in 2003.
Bell was a mentor to many on the department, including Fire Chief Stuart Glaser.
“He was a natural leader and so knowledgeable,” Glaser said. “He put in so much time here. If there was a special project or anything that needed to be done, he would be here.”
Bell also worked for the Stillwater Police Department for 30 years, retiring as a captain in 1998.
City officials estimate that Bell responded to more than 15,000 service calls during his years on the fire department; Stillwater’s population is around 19,000. For many years, he “was No. 1 in run calls,” he said.
“He definitely left an imprint on a lot of people through all his years,” Glaser said. “He touched a lot of lives — not only the people he helped, but the people in the department, too. Those are tough shoes to fill.”
The first fire Bell was sent out on was a Queen Anne mansion on West Chestnut Street in 1969. Flames were visible when the rookie volunteer arrived on the scene.
His last fire was an electrical fire in a HVAC unit on the roof of Dairy Queen near Valley Creek Mall on Dec. 23.
His most traumatic call came on the night of Jan. 22, 1982. A fire at Brine’s Meat Market on Main Street caused the death of two firefighters from the Mahtomedi Fire Department. Bell’s friend and fellow firefighter Kevin Charlsen nearly perished.
“The roof collapsed, and they went down …” Bell told the Pioneer Press in 2019. “A lot of the guys had bad memories of that night, and I was no different. For many years there, I would start to talk about it, and I would start to cry.”
Bell was hospitalized for hypothermia after the Brine’s fire — the only time he has been hospitalized for injuries sustained on duty.
Bell grew up in Bayport; his father, Irving, was a part-time policeman and volunteer fireman for the city. He graduated from Stillwater High School in 1966 and started working part time for Stillwater police in 1968 and was hired as a full-time officer a year later.
Bell said it’s no surprise he followed in the footsteps of his father and other relatives who served as firefighters.
“It was always interesting to hear their stories and hear how excited they were about it,” he said. “It always intrigued me.”
Bell was the patriarch of a three-generation crew. His son, Jon, 53, and grandson, Jake, 34, also are Stillwater firefighters.
He has four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren so the legacy of the Bell name may live on.
“It’s hard to say,” Bell said. “I would love to see them follow in my footsteps, but it’s going to be a few years because they’re pretty young yet — just 1 and 3. I hope I’m alive to see it.”