BY KAREN GERHARDINGER | MIRROR REPORTER — Glancing outside the sunroom window at snow flurries, Norm Hurlburt told the story of when he was born at home, in Toledo’s Lenk’s Hill neighborhood, on March 22, 1923.
“The day I was born, there was quite a snowstorm, but my dad got the doctor there,” he said, adding that he already had two older sisters and later was joined by another sister.
This week, Norm is welcoming his own children – Susan, John, David, Kathy and Nancy – who are gathering to celebrate their dad’s 100th birthday. In addition to a family and friends party, Norm was honored by Toledo Fire & Rescue on March 21 and will be joined by fellow Libbey graduate and 100-year-old Doris Stone for a Waterside party on Sunday, April 2.
Growing up on Colburn Street in the Old South End of Toledo, Norm attended St. James Catholic School on Orchard and Broadway streets. As the Roaring ’20s turned into the Great Depression, Norm saw others struggle, but his dad, John, had steady work as a Toledo firefighter and was able to feed the family.
“We didn’t grow up real poor. We made do just like people did during the Depression,” he said.
He recalls that during Prohibition – when alcoholic beverages were banned – he and his sister would help their dad bottle beer in the basement. It was for his dad’s personal consumption or for family friends, not for bootlegging, he clarified.
For the first two years of high school, Norm attended Central Catholic but graduated from Libbey High School in 1941. With World War II underway, Norm was drafted by the Army.
“I was stateside. I was lucky, but I didn’t realize it at the time,” he said. “I knew a number of guys who didn’t make it back.”
Norm said his military experience was eye-opening since he had never traveled beyond seeing family in Indiana and Michigan. From Camp Perry in Port Clinton to the hills of California, Fort Custer in Michigan and two camps in New Jersey, Norm’s military career included truck driver, coast artillery and MP (military police).
While he was stationed in Fort Dix, N.J., after much training, Norm’s unit was sent to a prisoner of war camp in southern New Jersey, where a camp had recently been formed out of the woods.
When the war ended, Norm returned to Toledo to live with his parents and look for a job – and there were plenty of opportunities as factories transitioned from wartime work to manufacturing for mass consumption. Norm had several jobs, including work for Libbey Glass, Gulf Oil, an auto plant and driving a cement truck.
“I was never satisfied, though, so I thought I would see how the fire department would work out,” he said. “I was single, and the hours were 24 hours on and 48 hours off, which gave me free time. I liked to fish and bike ride a lot.”
Norm’s first day as a Toledo firefighter was on February 16, 1950. Per instructions, Norm had purchased his gear and was carrying it into the station at about 6:30 a.m. As he walked into the East Side station, he saw two firefighters sitting on the running board of a truck.
“I told them I was new. They asked my name and when I told them, they asked if I was related to John Hurlburt. When I said ‘Yes, that’s my dad,’ they told me ‘You won’t have to worry about being a fireman if you take after your dad,’” Norm said. “That meant a lot.”
John Hurlburt retired in 1953 and, while he didn’t work with Norm, the two did run into each other occasionally while working the same fire.
Working on the East Side in Station No. 6, Norm’s crew knew the area’s refineries inside and out. During one refinery fire, Norm and his crew had to get to the scene by bus because all of the rigs were already there. As he arrived, Norm saw his father, who gave him a few tips on what to expect.
During his 34-year career with Toledo Fire, Norm has many memorable moments, such as the Tiedtke’s department store fire in downtown Toledo in 1975. By the time his crew arrived to relieve others, just one brick wall was standing, and his job was to set up a monitor – a tripod to clamp the hose nozzle – and aim the water as close as possible to reduce the heat.
“Finally, the wall came down. I could see the bricks coming toward me like a wave of water,” he said. “I was a little worried for a moment.”
Many of the older buildings were especially dangerous because they lacked fire stops and mandatory sprinklers, Norm said. He shared one occasion when he and another firefighter climbed onto the roof of a factory that was on fire.
“We could feel the heat under us. We needed a hole for the heat to escape, and when we did – whew!” he exclaimed. “I got back to the fire station, and I looked like I was sunburned.”
While some relished the bravado image of a firefighter rescuing people, Norm said that wasn’t him.
“I never had to go in and carry three or four women out on my shoulders,” he laughed.
Norm did carry one woman across the threshold: his wife Fran, who he met at the Catholic Club. She understood his sense of humor and loved going out dancing to clubs like the 3D’s and in later years at the Centennial during summers. The two married in 1953 and started a family. Fran would bake pies and deliver them to the station, and the kids would come along to sit in the rigs and turn on the lights and sirens, daughter Kathy recalls.
On his days off, Norm would go fishing on Lake Erie, especially near Marblehead. Back in the early days, not many people were using motorized boats on the lake, and a rowboat could be rented for $3.00 or $4.00 a day.
“I knew many good fishing spots,” Norm said. “Especially near Marble-head, where the perch were plentiful.”
When the fire station obtained exercise equipment, Norm would ride his bike there on his days off to work out.
“When they bought that equipment, I was like a kid with a new toy,” he smiled.
Nancy credits her dad’s daily exercise as a reason for his longevity. Before Fran died in 1992, the two had a routine of walking every evening after dinner, taking the same 2.5-mile circuit around their Andora Drive home while the kids did the dishes.
Even in his early 90s Norm would ride his bike all over Toledo and the suburbs, including a 50-mile round trip from South Toledo to Grand Rapids and back. He loved the Metroparks, visiting Swan Creek often until moving to Waterside in 2016, knowing that the Wabash Cannonball Trail was nearby.
But Norm thinks it’s more than just daily exercise that’s kept him going.
“I was born with a good heart,” he said.