GENEVA — For decades he was respectfully called “Chief” and “GV1.”
Longtime members of the Geneva Fire Department said there will never be another like him.
“He was one in a million. He was the epitome of a fire chief,” said Jimmer McCormack of Carlton “Carl” Naegele, who died last weekend at 94. “He didn’t demand respect, but he commanded respect.”
Naegele, who joined the GFD’s Nester Hose Company in 1945 after serving in World War II, was appointed chief in 1958 and retired in 1986, when he was immediately given the title fire chief emeritus. The only GFD chief with a longer tenure was his predecessor, Louis McGuigan, who served from 1924-58.
“Guys did what Carl asked them because they didn’t want to disappoint him. He just had that presence,” said McCormack, an assistant GFD chief and member of the C.J. Folger Hook & Ladder Company. “When he was at a fire scene you knew he was in charge, but I never saw him angry. I would see him frustrated at times, but he was not a guy who would yell or holler. He was like World War II veterans of his time.”
Assistant Chief Kevin Powers, who joined the Nester Hose Company in 1954, knew Naegele for 65 years.
“He was full of energy back then and a real leader. I can’t emphasize that enough,” Powers said. “He just knew how to get everybody together, whether it was having a good time or on the fire mount.”
Naegele was born in Rochester but moved to Geneva at a young age with his parents, Carl and Alice. He was a DeSales High School graduate and served with the 84th Infantry during World War II, earning a Purple Heart when he was wounded in Belgium during the Battle of the Bulge.
After joining the Nester Hose, Naegele — as a young man he worked at his father’s body shop on Lewis Street — rose through the ranks to lieutenant, captain and assistant chief. He was a fire captain at Sampson Air Force Base before he was appointed GFD chief.
“He was my best buddy going back to the ’60s,” said Dan Higgins, another longtime member of the Nester Hose. “He was very dedicated to the city of Geneva and the people here. He really cared about the people and making sure they were OK when we were called to the scene. He always made sure the firefighters were well equipped, got home and no one got hurt.”
During his long tenure with the GFD, Naegele served on numerous fire boards and committees on the regional and state level. He formed professional relationships and friendships with firefighters and fellow chiefs from across the state.
“When I go to conferences and people find out I’m from Geneva, they ask about Carl. That’s how well he is still known,” current Geneva Fire Chief Mike Combs said. “No matter where I am, people know him.”
Naegele was vice president of the New York State Fire Chiefs Association and would attend the association’s annual conference in Sullivan County.
“I went to a couple of seminars with him down in Monticello,” Higgins recalled. “We would be in a field full of equipment, and people from all over the state would come up to him and call him ‘Chief’ and ‘GV1.’ Everyone knew him.”
Combs said Naegele was a mentor to every firefighter who served under him and chiefs that succeeded him, including Ralph DeBolt, who followed Naegele as chief in 1986 and retired in 2005. DeBolt passed away earlier this year.
“When Ralph took the position and Carl retired, he completely stepped back and let Ralph be the guy. He wanted Ralph to make his own groove,” Combs said. “Carl would be there if you had any questions, but didn’t come around offering advice.”
“When he retired, he took a step back. He didn’t want to overshadow Ralph. He wanted Ralph to run the department the way he wanted, not the way Carl wanted,” McCormack added. “Carl wasn’t a flashy guy, but he was a very popular guy. When he retired we gave him the title chief emeritus, and he wore that title with pride.”
“I can’t think of another person my dad spoke higher of than Carl,” said Ken DeBolt, now a lieutenant with the Folger Hook & Ladder Company. “Chief Naegele hired my dad, and as a kid I kind of grew up in the firehouse and would visit my dad while he was working. Carl was the nicest guy and a fine, upstanding gentleman. Dad would tell me what to do and not do in the department, and that was all modeled after the way Carl led the department.”
While Naegele was called a gentleman by all who knew him, they all agreed he could be a disciplinarian and expected professionalism at a fire scene.
“He was sharp and believed in being prepared. He could tell you go to hell, and you would look forward to the trip,” Powers said with a laugh, noting that Naegele would often take photos at fire scenes after he retired. “Anyone who ever knew him, even the young guys, respected him.”
“He would pat you on the back, chew you out a little bit, and still be your buddy,” Higgins added.
“He had rules you had to go by and told you what he expected of you,” Combs said. “It was cut and dry, and you knew that.”
DeBolt said Naegele was a master at balancing the needs of the paid and volunteer firefighters, which can be problematic at some departments.
“They say Geneva is kind of the exception to the rule when it comes to career and volunteer firefighters. That speaks highly of Chief Naegele’s ability to manage both those groups and pulling them together,” DeBolt said. “Carl had a subtle way to thank a guy for getting up at two in the morning to respond to a fire. If you weren’t there, the next day he would say ,’Hey, where were you last night?’ “
Naegele and his wife of 70 years, Betty, enjoyed going to fire department functions and banquets well after he retired as chief. Naegele would get a standing ovation at every one.
“I can’t think of another person more revered by the Geneva Fire Department than Carl Naegele,” DeBolt said.
“He and his wife were considered Geneva Fire Department royalty,” McCormack said. “His passing is sad, and we are certainly going to miss him, but 94 is a good run, and he definitely had a great life.”