One Thanksgiving years ago, a call went over the scanner for a fire.
Eugene Witek immediately set his Thanksgiving meal aside and stepped away from the table.
“What are you waiting for?” Witek asked his friend Ronald Czubakowski. “Come help me fight this fire.”
Later that evening, their wives, Ruth and Theresa, brought food for the crew of hungry firefighters who responded to the scene.
Known by a variety of nicknames, such as "Gene," Coach," "Chief," and "Scooter," Witek died April 22 at age 73.
“We loved his family as our own,” Czubakowski said. “He told Theresa just months ago he was coming up to Wisconsin to see us and the lilacs.”
Czubakowski grew up about a mile from Witek’s Wisconsin home. They rode the same bus to Pineland Elementary School in their youth.
Witek was raised in Lublin, Wisconsin, and grew up on a dairy farm. Lublin has a population of 118, according to the last census. The rural community is an hour drive outside of Eau Claire, and to the west of Green Bay.
Witek earned an education degree at the University of Wisconsin Lacrosse before relocating more than 1,200 miles to Ascension Parish.
He was a public-school teacher in Darrow and coordinator for Ascension Parish Fire District 1. Witek also served as a president and member of the Louisiana Fire Chief's Association. He played a major role in several area fire departments, including 5th Ward, St. Amant, and 7th Ward.
An avid sports fan, he was a stockholder in the NFL’s Green Bay Packers. He also enjoyed attending New Orleans Zephyrs (later nicknamed Baby Cakes) baseball games, and working in his yard.
Larry Witek, a cousin, grew up near Chicago and would visit the farm during the summer.
“I enjoyed baling hay with him and my Uncle John, but my favorite memory was going to get the cows from the pasture and woods for the morning milking,” Larry Witek said.
Looking back, he said “he wouldn’t have missed it for the world.”
He said Gene looked forward to the yearly visits as well.
“A few years ago, my wife and I got to visit Gene in Louisiana. He gave us the grand tour and introduced us to beignets. We order them whenever we can,” he said.
Sarah Pinion, of the Geismar Fire Department, has been in the fire service for 12 years. Like Witek, she moved from Wisconsin to Louisiana.
She first met Witek as a volunteer firefighter.
"When Gene and I first spoke he asked where up north I was from. I assumed he picked up on my northern accent," Pinion said. "I told him Wisconsin. He smiled and said 'Well, that makes two of us.'"
They both were raised on small family dairy farms in the northern state.
"We shared a love for old junk. Old tractors were a topic of conversation often and the old farming methods back home," Pinion said.
If he ran across an old Case tractor somewhere, he would snap a photo and send it to her.
Witek was a former baseball player himself and loved the Milwaukee Brewers. His sports photos and articles were published for years by the South Louisiana Sports Scene. He usually had a camera with him, Pinion said.
When they would visit their hometowns, they would always bring back Colby cheese and cheese curds for each other.
"He became more than a friend, I saw him as family. He always made home not feel so far away. He always had a shoulder to lean on, a minute to listen, and enjoyed sharing a laugh and smiles,” she said.
Witek was proud of his Polish heritage. Every year for Mardi Gras, Pinion would order cherry paczkis for him. Paczkis are Polish doughnuts served during celebrations similar to how king cakes are ubiquitous around the Mardi Gras season.
“I always enjoyed that about him. He was in Louisiana so long, but never changed. He still knew his roots and where he came from,” Pinion said.
One time, the two “Cheeseheads” (her term) worked together to remove a five-to-six-foot snake from the old Geismar fire station.
“He was such a loving and giving man,” she said. “I was devastated when I got the news of his passing.”
James LeBlanc, who serves as St. Amant Fire Chief and Constable, was a longtime friend of the Witek family for some 40 years. He delivered the eulogy at Witek’s April 28 funeral at the Lamar-Dixon Expo Center in Gonzales. The funeral included a bell ceremony and a final radio call.
“Chief Witek brought life to everything and touched every heart that he ever met,” LeBlanc said in his eulogy.
At age 13, LeBlanc interviewed with Chief Witek to become a junior firefighter.
Back in the 1980s, everything at the 7th District Fire Department was green - fire trucks, jump suits, patches, hoses, and plaques. The green represented Witek's affiliation with the Packers.
LeBlanc recalled walking by Witek's neat office and hearing a style of music he had never heard before.
"Witek loved his polka music," LeBlanc said. "He was extremely proud of his Polish heritage."
He said Witek was known throughout the state's fire service community as compassionate and gentle.
Witek was an outspoken leader who usually worked "behind the scenes," according to LeBlanc.
"He dedicated himself to helping others and never expected anything in return," LeBlanc said.
Witek once told him that giving back to others was "the only way to live life."
LeBlanc said he will miss his smile, sense of humor, polka music, and his love for cream soda and Dr. Pepper.
"He had such a friendly, warm, upbeat, positive, non-judgmental, and endearing personality," he said.
For Daron Galloway, Witek may have been his step-father, but he considered him “dad.”
“He loved being around family and loved teaching his grandkids everything he knew,” Galloway said. “He loved his community. No doubt about it. If someone needed him, he was there. He could get a call at 3 a.m. and he would be up and gone. He’d take the shirt off his back and give it to anybody.”
Galloway echoed the sentiments of many others who knew him.
“He loved his community and he loved serving people,” he said. “He was an all-around good man.”