The Old Mission Peninsula community, along with northern Michigan firefighters, police and emergency personnel, crowded into St. Joseph Catholic Church yesterday to bid farewell to Rich VanderMey, who died unexpectedly at his home on Dec. 26, 2019.
As noted in our story shortly after his death, Rich was a beloved member of the Old Mission Peninsula community since moving here with his family in 1970. He joined the Peninsula Fire Department in 1975 at the age of 18 and worked his way up to chief by 1986, a position he held for many years. He was also a member of the Traverse City Police Department Reserves Unit, and was instrumental in developing the Northwest Regional Fire Training Center.
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Mourners were greeted at the entrance of the church with two aerial fire trucks with extended ladders and the American flag hanging from the apex of the ladders.
Father Ben Rexroat, pastor of St. Joseph Catholic Church, and Deacon Jude Younker led the memorial service, which included tributes from Metro Fire Chief Pat Parker, Traverse City Police Chief Jeff O’Brien, Grand Traverse Sheriff Lieutenant Chris Oosse, and Traverse City Fire Chief Jim Tuller.
The tributes included Rich’s devotion to serving the Old Mission Peninsula community; his connection with his own fire department, as well as leaders and staff of neighboring fire departments and emergency personnel; his work ethic, which included working all day at the fire department and climbing on a tractor to farm in the evenings; his passion for teaching others about fire and emergency services; and that grin he always seemed to have on his face.
Peninsula Fire Chief Fred Gilstorff presented the American Flag to Rich’s wife, Pamela Montague VanderMey, and gave the Fire Chief’s Prayer. Peninsula Fire Lieutenants Nick Haines and Brent Strom led the Last Alarm Bell ceremony, which included ringing a bell three times.
In a Facebook post earlier today, Chief Gilstorff thanked the community for the beautiful service and great show of respect for Rich. He wrote:
“The Peninsula Twp. Fire department would like to thank all the residents, family, friends and firefighters that turned out for Fire Chief Rich VanderMey’s memorial yesterday. It was a great show of respect for a man that definitely deserved all of it. The fire department would like to thank:
“Traverse City Fire Department & Honor Guard, Grand Traverse Metro Fire Department and Honor Guard, Traverse City Police Department, Grand Traverse County Sheriff’s Department, Grand Traverse County Dispatch, Michigan State Police, East Bay EMS, Long Lake Fire Department, Blair Fire Department, White Water Fire Department, Paradise Fire Department, Green Lake Fire Department, Deacon Jude Yonker & Lector Rob Richardson, St. Joseph Catholic Church, Father Rexroat, St. Joseph Women’s Guild, Rich @ St. Joseph, Dave and Linda Sanger, The Jolly Pumpkin Restaurant, Alpena Fire Department, Ernie Able – bagpipes, Peninsula Township residents, and members of the Peninsula Township Fire Department and their families.
“While I know I may have potentially missed some people, I apologize. There were many people that stepped up and helped that I was unaware of. We are deeply appreciative for everyone’s assistance. Together, we put together a ceremony that showed the utmost respect for a man that will never be forgotten. God bless all of you. Rest easy, Chief. We have it from here and look forward to the day when we will meet again.
Fire Chief Fred Gilstorff“
At the end of the service, Central Dispatch in Traverse City broadcast Rich’s “Last Radio Call,” a moving tribute in which a 911 operator attempts to reach the deceased – in this case, “Red 7 Chief,” as the Peninsula Fire Department is known as “Red 7.” When unable to do so, 911 signs them off for the last time.
Below is a video of the last radio call to Rich. The audio is a little distorted (recorded on my phone), but I believe the 911 operator says “Grand Traverse Central Dispatch to Red 7 Chief” three times. Unable to reach him, she continues:
“All units stand by to copy last call to 7 Chief Rich VanderMey … 7 Chief Rich VanderMey has answered his final call … after 40-plus years of serving others, Chief VanderMey has heeded his last and final call. He has joined his heavenly father and has now become a guardian to watch over his family, friends and fellow emergency responders. He will forever be in our hearts. May his soul rest in peace. Grand Traverse Central Dispatch clear, January 4, 2020, at 12:16.”
Below is a video of the full service, which St. Joseph Church recorded through their streaming service. There is some visitation time at the beginning, and the actual service starts around 1 hour and 10 minutes into the recording.
Here are a few more photos from the service, as well as some vintage photos of Rich and the Peninsula Fire Department during fire training sessions.