Longtime West Allis resident William J. Koehn shares a birth year with numerous
celebrities, including actor Alec Guinness, baseball Hall of Famer Joe DiMaggio, boxer Joe Louis, poet Dylan Thomas and statesman Edmund S. Muskie.
None of those celebrities is alive. But Bill Koehn, born Jan. 10, 1914, is going strong at age 102.
Koehn, of German and Polish ancestry, lived up to his reputation for humorous observations during a visit with a Catholic Herald reporter and photographer at his apartment in the Library Square retirement community recently. When the discussion turned to his longevity, the centenarian quipped that his guardian angel told him, “‘You have to stay here until you get it right!’”
A bit more seriously, Koehn added, “Boy, I wish I knew” with regard to the secret of his spanning the pontificates of 10 popes and administrations of 17 U.S. presidents, and living through both World Wars, the Great Depression, the conclusion of the Cold War era and the advent of the computer age. “I’m just thankful. I never expected to be 100. Never.”
Then again, Koehn’s dad, William M., lived to be 80 at a time a man’s life expectancy was considerably lower than it is today, and his mother survived until 91. Koehn’s wife of 75 years, Sylvia, died a few years ago at 99, while the only living and youngest of his three siblings, Ruth Winkelmann, 87, resides in Plymouth.
“I must be getting old,” Koehn’s been heard to quip, as if the idea is occurring to him for the first time.
Koehn was a smoker at a couple junctures of his life, but never for very long and never heavily. His beer drinking is virtually nonexistent. He wears corrective lenses but has no need of hearing aids. Koehn, who greeted the reporter with a firm handshake, owns a walker and ambles in and around the retirement complex, sometimes going to the West Allis Public Library next door to read a newspaper or check out a book — the Western genre is a favorite.
His days are longer than those of folks much younger, as Koehn tends to rise before 7 a.m. and retire after 10 p.m. Once a traditional league bowler, he’s an occasional Wii bowler nowadays. He has little interest in much of what’s on TV, but does enjoy news shows, EWTN and sports programming.
Baseball and football are favorite spectator sports, although Koehn admits that watching the Milwaukee Brewers has been “a little discouraging” this season.
Koehn was a football lineman at the old West Allis High School where the gridiron on which he played was situated on the land Library Square and the public library occupy. He possesses a lifetime souvenir from his football days — a trick knee, the result of being hit by a pair of opponents simultaneously.
As the centenarian sat in an easy chair during the interview, a Bible and a booklet of prayers were close at hand. Koehn takes advantage of the opportunity to pray the rosary with fellow Library Square residents on Monday mornings and to attend Masses which retired priests celebrate on Friday afternoons. One of his four children will occasionally take him to West Allis’ Holy Assumption Church for Mass as well.
Visits to Holy Assumption represent a homecoming for Koehn. He graduated from its grade school and continued his parish membership thereafter. Years later, after buying a home near 93rd and Becher streets, he joined another West Allis parish, St. Aloysius, and became a member of its Holy Name Society.
For nearly 30 years Koehn worked as a West Allis firefighter, often driving the hook-and-ladder truck. He is the WAFD’s oldest retiree and, when he turned 100, firefighters from the neighboring station feted him at a surprise Library Square party. Previously, he and another retired fireman, now deceased, were honored guests in a West Allis Western Days parade.
His battling blazes in West Allis amounted to following in the footsteps of his father, William M. Koehn. In an era when the community was served by volunteer firemen – no female firefighters in the days of the father, or even the days of the son – William M. was among those volunteers. His centenarian son pointed out that William M., a foundry worker, became a volunteer shortly after the department had replaced its horses with motorized equipment.
William J. was trained on the job, and trained others on the job, before fire academies were de rigueur. “We had some good officers,” he told the Catholic Herald.
He started with the West Allis department in 1942, at a monthly salary of $180. His firehouse duties included being a “bull cook” – assisting the firefighter chef of the day by opening cans, setting tables and the like.
He recalled, with a smile, tripping once after a fire alarm had sounded and then having to slide down the pole head first. More somberly, he remembered carrying the bodies of children who’d perished in one fire or another and offering up a prayer or two as he traveled to fire scenes.
Koehn found firefighting a delightful career, overall. He continued to work after retiring from the WAFD; one of his later employers was the local parks department. He found work was easier in retirement than it had been at the time of his high school graduation, which occurred during the Depression.
“You couldn’t buy a job” then, according to Koehn, or so it seemed. If one did manage to get hired, he or she might not be working for long, as economic conditions forced many a business to cut back or close entirely. “One year, I’ll never forget it, I had nine different jobs,” said Koehn of his pre-fire department period. His resume includes peacetime service in the U.S. Naval Reserve.
“He is a wonderful inspiration to the whole family,” the youngest of his children, William A., who sat in on the interview, said of the Koehn family patriarch. Besides William A., principal of St. Coletta Day School, Milwaukee, the family includes daughters Kathy Kuck of Appleton, Ruth Ann Messer of Waukesha and Susan Koehn of Milwaukee; nine grandchildren; and 11 great-grandchildren. Family has been one of the three important F’s in his father’s life, William A. said, along with friends and faith.
Noted the centenarian, “My wife and I tried to do a good job bringing up the kids. We tried to bring up our kids like we were brought up.” That included an emphasis on Catholic education and church attendance, but not a foreboding razor strap hung at the ready for correctional purposes, which was a feature in the household of his father, William M.
William J. Koehn, it seems, didn’t need a strap. His son remembers Koehn’s wagging his index finger by way of a warning. That simple gesture, from a parent reported to have been an excellent role model, was enough to forestall any monkey business.