John Kohl, a member of the Catonsville Fire Department since 1988, helps clean up the site of an accident on Interstate 95 on May 1, his last day of service to the county.
John Kohl, a member of the Catonsville Fire Department since 1988, helps clean up the site of an accident on Interstate 95 on May 1, his last day of service to the county. (Photo by Nicole Munchel)

John Kohl, a member of the Catonsville Fire Department since 1988, reported to the firehouse for duty for the last time Friday evening.

After more than four decades of service to the county, he hung up his helmet on May 1 and beginning his retirement.

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The decision, the 59-year-old said, was far from easy.

"It's not just a job, I call it a calling," the Lansdowne resident said of his lifelong profession. "I don't want to leave, but I'm leaving."

Kohl, a 1973 Lansdowne High School graduate, began his career in firefighting when he was just 16 years old. He volunteered with his local department, the English Consul Volunteer Fire Department, and was immediately hooked.

After he graduated, he began working right away. He spent more than seven years working with the Lansdowne High School grounds crew and six months at Catonsville High School working in the shop department before being offered a job with the county fire department. He was stationed at Station 6 in Dundalk for six years before transferring to the Catonsville station.

"Not a lot of guys stick around for 40 years," he said of his time working for the county.

He is among the longest-tenured members of the county fire department, a fact confirmed by the county.

Although the job could be dangerous and often challenging, Kohl insisted it was the best job he could have imagined for himself.

"Just being part of the fire service," has been his favorite thing about his career, he said. "The whole idea of what we do and what we're willing to do — we put our lives on the line."

For most of his career, Kohl has been an engine driver. He drives the truck that carries water and hoses the firefighters use to put out the fires. That often means he must be prepared and ready to go at any moment. The experience, he said, has been incredible.

"The fire service is a unique profession," he said. "You see good things and you see bad things. Every day is different and we never know."

Used to working a schedule involving two 10-hour days followed by two 14-hour nights before earning four days off, he anticipates the additional free time in retirement will be an adjustment.

But Kohl, who is divorced with a son, already has some ideas about how to spend his days.

"I'm going to do more ballparks and do more traveling," he said, who plans to see baseball games in New York this week.

Visiting baseball parks for Kohl is, in some ways, a second job. An avid baseball fan, he said he has visited 345 parks and watched a game played in all 50 states.

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"It's a bucket list," he says of his ongoing baseball tour.

Also on that list is travel all over the world. He has been to Japan three times and visited numerous other countries at least once.

Next month, he plans to spend two weeks visiting Ireland, England and Scotland.

For Capt. Dave Dryden of the Catonsville Fire Department, Kohl's stories about his travels will be missed. But members of the station on Frederick Road will also miss his personality and expertise.

"He's a veteran driver. A lot of the guys look up to him," Dryden said. "He's one of the best in the business."

The department has long relied on Kohl to help instruct new recruits on department apparatus and talk to visiting children about the role of the department and the importance of fire safety, Dryden said. As a southwest Baltimore County native, Kohl has also earned a reputation for his knowledge of the Catonsville area.

"In the two years I've been [at the Catonsville Fire Department], I've never needed to open up a map book," said Dryden, praising Kohl's knowledge of even the smallest back streets in the area.

Over the years, he added, they have also become friends.

"It's a real tightknit group," Dryden said. "He'll be sorely missed, to say the least."

But Kohl isn't sure he'll be able to stay away for long. Living just minutes away from a number of volunteer departments, Kohl said he may wind up volunteering with a local department.

And whenever he wants to come back to Catonsville for a visit, the drive is just a few minutes and Dryden said he expects regular visits.

"I love being a firefighter," Kohl said. "I always have and I always will."

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