Family, friends honor the life of Chip Imker

By Rachel Kytonen

While the Cambridge community and Cambridge Fire Department continues to grieve the loss of firefighter Chip Imker, his family and friends reflect on his caring nature and giving spirit.

During a press conference held Thursday, May 26, outside Cambridge Fire Hall, friends, family members and firefighters described 35-year-old Chip as a beloved father, son, brother, partner, soldier, private business owner, firefighter and coach.

Chip passed away Tuesday, May 24, following an accident at the Cambridge Fire Hall on Monday, May 23, at approximately 9:40 p.m. The accident occurred following a training session. Chip had been a member of the Cambridge Fire Department for 18 months, and was a 1994 graduate of Cambridge-Isanti High School.

Standing inbetween Chip Imker’s brothers Chuck and Chad, Chip’s long-time partner, Kristin Hill, thanked the community and area fire departments for their support and compassion. Photo by Elizabeth Sias

“Our city of Cambridge feels a sense of deep and profound sadness as we extend our sincere condolences to the entire Chip Imker family,” said Cambridge Mayor Marlys Palmer. “We do truly recognize and we acknowledge Chip Imker as a valuable and committed fellow citizen, as a brave and proud Cambridge firefighter and U.S. National Guard soldier, as a beloved family member and as an excellent role model for all that will follow him.”

Mayor Palmer said the city is grateful for Chip’s service to the fire department.

“Our community is humbly grateful to Chip and to his service and to the legacy that he has left and given to all of us, and I to would like to extend the sympathy of the citizens to the Cambridge Fire Department as they struggle now with the loss of a fallen comrade,” Palmer said. “Our firefighters, as all firefighters, are held in the highest regard by our citizens because of their unquestioning response and ability to step into harm’s way for any one of us. We all know and feel for their deep silent and steadfast loyalty to one another that is such a strong and common bond for them.”

Cambridge Fire Department Chief Sean Okerlund talked about losing his dear friend and fellow firefighter Chip Imker. Standing behind Okerlund are firefighters Neil Jennissen, Corey Bustrom and Todd Tomczik. Photo by Elizabeth Sias

Mayor Palmer ended her comments by quoting William Shakespeare, “If you have tears, prepare to shed them now.”

Corey Bustrom, public information officer of the Cambridge Fire Department and firefighter, said the entire department is grieving.

“Our firefighters are going through a very difficult time as you can imagine,” Bustrom said. “We would like to thank our spouses and family for the support and love and encouragement they have given us as we go through this together.”

Bustrom said much appreciation goes to the family of Chip, and the area fire departments.

“Our hearts go out to the family of Chip Imker,” Bustrom said. “Chip was a brother to us and his family will always be a part of our family. We thank the family for working closely with us to help us honor chip the best way possible. We have received a huge outpouring of support from our community. Thank you for everything you have done and all that you will do to help us move forward. We would like to thank all of our neighboring fire departments, for their support and for volunteering their time serving our communities’ fire needs while we are grieving through this very difficult time.”

An estimated 100 fire units were on hand for the procession which passed under a flag-draped arch in downtown Cambridge, with the CFD trucks the last ones to pass through town. Photo by Karen Long

Bustrom also noted the efforts of the MN Fallen Firefighter’s Memorial Association, the MN State Fire Chief’s Association FAST Team and the St. Croix Valley Firefighter’s Association.

Neil Jennissen,  Chip’s teacher at CIHS and wrestling coach, has known the family since 1990.

“Chip was a very, very special person,” Jennissen said.

Jennissen noted Chip was captain of the wrestling team, and had a lot of character. He explained how during Chip’s senior year the team made it to the state wrestling tournament and were facing Apple Valley.

Chip had a torn meniscus in one of his knees but still insisted on wrestling. Jennissen said Chip ended up being able to wrestle which was a “show of his determination.”

Jennissen said Chip also was quite a character.

“Chip was always telling me one day you and I will wrestle,” Jennissen explained. “So one day we were on the mat, and next thing I know I caught a punch to the eye, and it swelled up and I ended up with a black eye.”

Jennissen said the team won a conference title at the end of the year and the wrestlers gave the coach a t-shirt and signed their names.

“Where Chip signed his name he drew a stick figure with a coach, a face and a black eye,” Jennissen recalled. “He always had something up his sleeve, and there are so many great memories of this kid. He was a doer, and had a great business going.”

Jennissen mentioned Chip was an organ donor and his organs have been donated to people all over the country.

Chad Imker, Chip’s older brother, talked about the time they served together in the U.S. National Guard.

Chip Imker

“In addition to a great person, and great brother, he was also a spouse to Kris, and has two beautiful young sons whose legacy will live on through,” Chad said. “We served together in the Army National Guard. As a soldier, and later with the fire department, a sense of service and stewardship was very strong in Chip’s life and giving back to the community. He also volunteered as a wrestling coach for his children and other children.”

Chip’s long-time partner, Kristin Hill, said a few words while fighting back her tears.

“On behalf of myself, Hayden, Connor and Chip’s family, thank you to everybody,” Hill said. “It has been amazing. Friends, family, the fire department, the Fallen Firefighter’s group and other fire departments, the community—all the things they have done to help us. I just want to thank everybody.”

Cambridge Fire Chief Sean Okerlund talked about Chip the firefighter, dear friend, and brother of every Cambridge firefighter.

Okerlund recalled how within the first 12 months of Chip joining the Cambridge Fire Department, he was a certified Firefighter I and II, as well as a trained first responder.

Okerlund said he knew Chip long before he joined the Cambridge Fire Dept.

“Since his hire date, I had referred to him as the ‘chosen one’ and he did everything I asked of him, and then some,” Okerlund said. “Personally I held him to a higher standard because of our personal relationship. If I ever needed anything done, I knew Chip would be right there for me. His dedication to the fire department was second to none. Chip Imker is the firefighter that is unreplaceable.

Okerlund said he would call Chip his “little buddy,” and “chipmunk.”

“Caring, giving, very energetic, trustworthy, fun loving, and honest,” Okerlund said. “To me, he’s the brother I never had. As a friend, I knew he’d always do anything for me and he’d always be there. Now I need to be there for him and the family he’s left behind. Every day Chip gave the best of himself to everyone he met, no matter who it was. He always made time for everyone who needed the help.”

Okerlund said he will miss Chip very much.

“I will miss my brother Chip more than anything. This is a void in my life that cannot be filled.”

The Chip Imker Firefighter Memorial Fund has been established in his memory. Donations to the memorial fund can be sent to Minnco Credit Union, 235 1st Avenue West, Cambridge, Minnesota 55008. Checks should be made payable to Kristin Hill.

For tax-exempt donations, donations can be sent to Cambridge Fire Relief Association, 300 3rd Ave. N.E., Cambridge, MN 55008. Checks should be made payable to Cambridge Fire Relief Association.