By Leah Sander
WINONA LAKE — A “fireman’s fireman” has passed away.
Roger Gelbaugh, who had served for more than 50 years with the Winona Lake Fire Department, including time spent as its chief from 1991-99 and 2003-06, passed away at age 80 on Saturday, June 18.
Winona Lake Town Manager Craig Allebach told InkFreeNews that Gelbaugh was a “fireman’s fireman,” citing he was “really dedicated to firefighting.”
He first met Gelbaugh when he was working with the Winona Lake Police Department and Gelbaugh was working as a lineman for United Telephone Co. (now known as CenturyLink).
Allebach noted Gelbaugh was always “trying to improve the fire department” with projects.
WLFD Public Information Officer Mike Cox got to know Gelbaugh as a fellow firefighter with the department. He said Gelbaugh cared much about firefighters’ safety on the job.
He noted that Gelbaugh was adamant that those in the fire department should have priorities in the order of God, their families, their jobs and then firefighting.
Cox also shared a favorite memory regarding Gelbaugh when the fire department had gone to a state firefighters’ event.
They had brought an antique firetruck and were expecting that it would win a prize. Numerous awards were given out, and Winona Lake’s firetruck hadn’t won any.
Cox said Gelbaugh, who was near the stage where awards were being announced, remarked, “Well, I don’t know what they’re looking for.”
A woman announcing awards overheard him and scowled before stating that Winona Lake’s truck had won “Best in Show.”
She then looked at Gelbaugh and said, “Does that satisfy you, Sir?” remembered Cox.
Gelbaugh was also heavily involved with the Kosciusko County Fire Association, serving as the emcee at its annual events and as its president for a time.
He also served in the military.
He was a Vietnam Army veteran, serving from 1963-66. Among the awards he received was a Purple Heart after being injured while in service.
Gelbaugh was honored in February when he was recognized as Kosciusko County Veteran of the Month by the Kosciusko County Commissioners.
Public service runs in Gelbaugh’s family. His son Kevin Gelbaugh has followed in his father’s footsteps by serving as WLFD’s current chief and also works for the Kosciusko County Sheriff’s Office. His son-in-law, Rick Hurley, is Claypool’s fire chief and a pastor at Winona Lake Community Church.
Kevin, at the time of the Veteran of the Month ceremony, had mentioned to InkFreeNews that his father never forced him to go into public service, instead allowing him to make his own choices.
He said Roger was his “hero growing up” and still was.
Living His Faith
When Roger was honored as Veteran of the Month in February, he referenced his battle with COVID-19 in fall 2021. Cox said that he believes Roger’s fight with the illness “strengthened his belief in God and commitment to the church.”
Doug Lemon, who co-pastors WLCC along with Hurley, also mentioned Gelbaugh’s faith. He said Gelbaugh helped bring the church together after a merger of congregations.
“He is a deeply devoted husband, father and grandfather who treasures both his immediate family and his church family,” said Lemon. “He will be both missed and celebrated for many, many years to come.”
Cox summed up Roger through the following: “He was committed to his family, to his God, to the fire department and to the town and the county fire association.”