Our Neighbors..Work ethic, dedication earn Cloquet man top fire position

Former Superior mayor Dave Ross shared a story about Cloquet native Steve Panger during Panger's Jan. 17 swearing-in ceremony as Superior's new fire chief. Ross related that a number of years ago there was a sniper on top of a building threatenin...

Cloquet native Steve Panger was recently sworn in as the new chief of the Superior Fire Department (at top). Contributed Photo

Former Superior mayor Dave Ross shared a story about Cloquet native Steve Panger during Panger's Jan. 17 swearing-in ceremony as Superior's new fire chief. Ross related that a number of years ago there was a sniper on top of a building threatening the citizens of Superior. The S.W.A.T. team was there. As Mayor Ross approached the scene, and he suddenly saw a fire truck drive up next to the building to allow S.W.A.T. team members to get to the top of the building, which they did. They ultimately diffused the potentially dangerous situation, and Ross said he waited to see who the brave fireman was who drove the truck up to the side of the building, possibly risking his own life at the hands of the sniper.

That fireman was Steve Panger.

Chances are likely you won't hear that story from Panger himself, however, since he is characteristically soft-spoken and self-effacing. But make no mistake about it - the 19-year veteran brings a multitude of skills and experience to his new job - and an outstanding work ethic that he attributes to his mom and dad.

Panger grew up in Cloquet. His dad was Gale "Pickles" Panger, a well-known barber in downtown Cloquet for some 45 years.

"Even after he was retired, he'd go to his friends' houses and cut their hair, and he continued to cut my hair as well," said Panger. "I remember hanging out once in a while down at the barber shop. There were always a lot of stories floating around. The barbershop was kind of the center of town, the center of politics and everything else."


His dad started out in a shop in the Labor Temple building and then moved to a small storefront on Cloquet Avenue, where his barber pole was displayed long after he retired 15 years ago. "Pickles" recently passed away at the age of 79.

"He had a lot of good years," reflected Panger.

Steve was the youngest of eight kids. He grew up in at a house on 10th Street, just south of Washington Elementary School, and his dad raised eight kids on a barber's salary.

"It took a lot of hair on the floor for that!" remarked Panger.

"He was a hard worker, always," he went on to relate. "Every day he went in to the shop, and on the weekends we always had our projects around home. He knew everyone and never forgot names. He was just a good guy. He had a lot of integrity, and that was definitely one of the biggest things he gave me. Every day he would take 20 minutes somewhere around midday and run over to the Solem for coffee. He never stopped doing that with his coffee group. He continued that almost until the day he died. That was a big deal - the guys he hung out with over coffee. It was pretty much the same old faces - they just kept getting older!"

Likewise, Panger's mother, Donna, accomplished much for a woman of her era. She owned and operated The Red Carpet in Cloquet for several years, becoming a business woman in addition to a mother in a day when that was still more the exception than the norm.

As Panger was growing up, he played hockey and tennis and was in band throughout school, continuing even after he went to college at the University of Minnesota Duluth. In fact, Panger cites his band instructors among those he considers his mentors.

"All of my band teachers - Chuck Liebfreid, Zane Grey - they were good influences on me," he said, "along with [Cloquet High School English teacher] John Buytaert, though he probably would be surprised to hear me say that! I did well on all my writing classes in college because of him."


When Panger graduated from Cloquet High School in 1984, he went on to UMD for three years and wanted to be a physical therapist for a time before realizing that it wasn't the career for him.

"I jumped around to a couple of schools," he said, "trying to figure out what I wanted to do. Then I thought maybe I'd like to be a paramedic, and that kind of led to wanting to be a firefighter. I was drawn to that field because I wanted to do something that would be helpful to other people and ... it was exciting! It has kind of a mix of the physical and mental aspects of the job. Firefighters used to just fight fires, but now we're into Hazmat (hazardous materials) and technical rescue. There are lots of things to keep your mind occupied as well as being able to jump on the rig and go out on a call."

Panger ended up at Duluth Technical College (now Lake Superior College) and graduated from its fire program in 1991. He later received a fire science-generalist Bachelor of Science degree from Lake Superior State University in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., graduating magna cum laude.

In 1993, he was hired by the Superior Fire Department, and he's been there ever since. One of the very first fires he responded to was a simple grass fire, but he said some of the larger fires involved the Tower Building and several others in Superior's old downtown district.

"I've certainly had my share of fires in 19 years," he said. "There's a lot to deal with when you see some of the things you see, but you try to remember some of the less serious, more comical calls, like the day someone came to the fire hall for help because their puppy stuck its head in the rim of a tire and couldn't get out. He had it all greased up and was trying to get it out of there. We took the saws out and cut a little piece out of the rim. We do all kinds of calls, and I think that is one of the things that's the most fun about the job - you just never know what you're going to wind up on."

Panger said he's had to haul people out of burning buildings, and some of those missions haven't always had a happy outcome.

"You just try to do the best you can do," he stated. "You try to lessen the hurt and damage that's being caused. I think that's why we're always in a good position - people appreciate that. It has a lot of rewards, for sure."

Panger by no means downplays the dangers of the job.


"I think it's one of those things where the danger is there, and it's always going to be there," he said. "But as you become trained and get more experience, you begin to realize that's how you deal with some of the dangers - through training, so hopefully you're making the right decisions out there and you're not taking any foolish chances and are able to make the right choice."

Panger officially took over the reins of the Superior Fire Department on Dec. 21, but he wanted to wait until January for his official swearing-in ceremony so it could take place along with two new firefighters who were also being sworn in. And though Panger's job will now turn to largely administrative duties, he said he is more than happy to transition into this latest phase of his career.

His department has a staff of 40 firefighters, plus an administrative assistant and a mechanic. The department also recently received a federal Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response Grants (SAFER) grant, created to provide funding directly to fire departments to help them increase the number of trained, "front line" firefighters available in their coverage area.

"It's going to bring our staffing up to levels that we haven't seen for about 17 years," said Panger.

The Superior Fire Department covers 45 square miles in the city as well as the Village of Superior. All are EMTs and act as first responders in medical emergencies, though they don't transport patients. They are also the Hazmat team for the region and have team members on the state's Urban Search and Rescue Team, host a Junior Fire Setters program, and have an arson investigation team and a dive team.

With so many responsibilities, Panger said the department has found it advantageous to partner with other departments in the area to augment their ongoing training.

"One of the first things we talked about [after I became chief] was training," he said. "I think that's one of the things I bring to the job - I have kind of a diverse background because I have lived in Cloquet, Duluth and Superior, so I'm not afraid to search out resources in those communities to find ways we can work together."

In his previous position as fire training coordinator, Panger arranged to get the Cloquet Area Fire District's training tower and burn trailer over to Superior for a week to use for training.


"It was nice to be able to coordinate with them," said Panger. "In return, we are going to provide some Hazmat training for the CAFD. It costs us very little money; it's a matter of 'horse trading' the various skills we have on hand."

Panger and his wife Robyn, a graduate of Esko High School, have been married since 2004 and have two young children, Samuel, 6, and Sophia, 5. It was a proud day for all of them when he was sworn in as the Superior fire chief.

He said it would have been a proud day for his father as well....

The morning of Panger's interview for the Superior chief's job, he learned that his father had been diagnosed with terminal cancer.

"That was quite the day," reflected Panger, "quite the emotional roller coaster. At about 10:30 that morning, I found out about my dad's cancer diagnosis, and the interview was around 2 or 2:30. We had an idea he had cancer, but we didn't know what it was. The tests came back that day."

After the interview, Panger was crossing the Bong Bridge when Superior Mayor Bruce Hagen called him and told him that, in a unanimous decision (8-0), he had been selected as the next Superior Fire Chief. This was a dream come true for Steve and more so for his dad. Steve drove directly to his parents' house with the news.

"My dad knew everything that was going on, and he knew that with this job I would be faced with tough things and would have to somehow perform anyway," said Panger. "That's kind of the way he thought - that challenges you have are sometimes just tests. That was a tough day in many ways, but he sure was proud."


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