Boone County’s first volunteer fire fighter continues to provide leadership

“Boone County, this is Investigator 65,” said John Wilke as he keyed up the portable radio.

Now a 52-year member of the Boone County Fire Protection District, Wilke has been a member of the department since before it was a fire protection district and has had a fulfilling volunteer career. However, Wilke did not predict that he would ever be a fire fighter or join BCFPD.

“I worked as a clerk for Katz Drug Company through high school and found I loved retail,” Wilke said. “I realized I didn’t want to be a pharmacist but decided to leave Kansas City to come to the University of Missouri and pursue a degree in marketing and accounting.”

Wilke’s first semester was difficult, and he thought about dropping out of college, but decided to stay for his second semester. During this time, he picked up a great infatuation for citizen band (CB) radios. He started making and selling “fire bugs,” little lights that illuminated on the end of CB antennas when they transmitted. The fire bug sales are how he supported himself in college and obtained the nickname Glow Worm.

“One night while chattering over the CB, John Taylor got a ahold of me and said, ‘Fire Bug, why don’t you come to our fire station and look at it,’ and I did,” Wilke said. “While I was there, they got a call and I got to ride on the truck, I was instantly hooked.”

At that time there was no fire district for Boone County and the Columbia Fire Department wouldn’t extend pass the city limits.  A group of CB individuals felt something should be done and started the Central Missouri Radio Squad. Wilke was their first firefighter.

“We had a 1954 White Pumper and got called to a mobile home fire,” Wilke said. “We actually put the dang thing out, we were intoxicated with our own success.”

Wilke’s personal interest in acquiring information about firefighting grew immensely. He was set to be a fire instructor in the Air Force, but three days before he was to report for duty a motorcycle accident left him unable to continue in the military. He stayed with firefighting and was sent to command Station 42, Kansas City, Missouri, fire station that had lost staff during the 1970s due to strikes.

Eventually Wilke found his way into State Farm Insurance where he spent the majority of his time in specialty claims investigations. During his 32 year career at State Farm, he developed his own vehicle fire protocols to investigate car fires. His work caught corporate attention and they asked Wilke to do annual trainings. The training grew to a much larger campaign of teaching classes to more than State Farm employees. Wilke taught in London, across the United States, and was even asked by Ford Motor company for advice. At age 55, John retired from State Farm and redirected his efforts back into the fire district.

“Boone County and Boone County Fire wouldn’t be the same without him,” said Andrew Mallow, a fellow firefighter. “He’s always someone I can count on and he has a wealth of knowledge.”

Wilke is now a captain for Boone County Fire and, after retiring from State Farm undertook the responsibility of being division head of the fire investigators. He lives close to Boone County Fire Station 9, which is where he spends a majority of his time.

“He is always willing to put in the time and go the extra distance,” Mallow said. “New recruits and I always go to him when difficult questions arise because he’s a great mentor.”

“He has the largest heart out of anyone and is just as passionate when it comes to helping people out and the fire service,” said Lauren Imhoff a friend of Wilke. “He can lighten up the darkest moments and always brings a friendly pun, even if they’re not wanted.

“There probably isn’t anyone that better lives out the Boone County Fire slogan ‘a helping hand’ than John,” Imhoff said.