Joan Rau was 18 years old when she was hired as a temp worker at the Council Bluffs Fire Department, covering for a woman on maternity leave. The woman never came back and Rau never left — until now.
Rau, the administrative secretary to the fire chief — a title that doesn’t fully encompass all she did for the department — celebrated the last day in a 45-year career Friday with a party and bell ringing at the main fire station on Fourth Street.
“It’s like losing a mother,” said Fire Chief Justin James, the fourth and final chief Rau served under. “She has mothered every employee here.”
James took over as fire chief in 2014 after joining the department in 1999. Rau was there for it all.
“She pinned my badge on me when I came on the job,” he said.
Rau said her role included doing, “a little bit of everything.” Payroll, benefits, policies and procedures. And watching technology advance.
“I started out making copies with a mimeograph machine,” she said, chuckling. “Now I have a copier. A little bit of an upgrade.”
James said, “she’s an integral of the fire department. She had all the historical knowledge of why things were done the way they were,” he said. “If you ever had a question about anything, you just went to Joan and she knew it. She knew the union contract like the back of her hand, the personnel policies. Always willing to lend a hand on any project.”
James continued, “We never even worried about it,” when talking about everything Rau took care of, including a complex payroll process that left the fire chief joking, “Are we going to get paid?”
“I know he’s freaking out,” Mayor Matt Walsh said, referring to James, during the celebration.
“We’ve been fortunate in the city to have a number of longtime employees,” Walsh said. “Forty-five years, that’s gotta be one of the longest.”
Along with four chiefs, Rau’s tenure included around 30 assistant chiefs and more than 300 firefighters, nearly 60% of all the firefighters that ever worked for the department since 1884, according to James.
“She’s been the one constant for the last 45 years in the fire department,” the fire chief said.
Rau was reserved during an interview while tasked with talking about herself. She said she enjoyed that the job provided a variety of duties. But asked about her favorite part, she answered, “All the wonderful people. The people.”
Looking to the future, Rau said she hopes to travel. Spend time at home. Other than that?
“I’m just going to take it one day at a time,” she said.
The celebration at the Fourth Street station was well attended, with well wishers from the fire department stopping by, along with city officials and other friends. Rau was emotional in describing what it meant to her — the people, the bell ringing. Leaving it all behind.