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Olson: Honorary captain’s career in football, firefighting

If you go to the Northern Illinois University football game Wednesday against Ball State – or maybe if you just watch it on TV – you’ll probably hear about Albert Riippi.

He’ll be an honorary captain of the NIU squad for the game. Near the end of the second quarter, he’ll be presenting the keys to a new pickup truck to a veteran who was wounded in Afghanistan on behalf of the DeKalb Firefighters Union.

Some of the local firefighters suggested involving Riippi in the key presentation, and it turned out that NIU officials liked his story, too, DeKalb fire Lt. Luke Howieson said.

“The university wanted an honorary captain, and I think it worked out nice,” said Howieson. “It was suggested we use him for the presentation of the keys, and they were like, ‘We need a captain,’ so it all worked out.”

Riippi is a lifelong DeKalb resident, and in his 87 years, he’s done everything to make him the ideal choice for a ceremonial role in Wednesday’s festivities.

He graduated from DeKalb High School at age 17 in the spring 1944, and with a war on, he’d already decided to enlist in the Navy. His two older brothers already were serving. At almost 6-feet and 220 pounds, he was a big Finnish kid who played offensive and defensive tackle for a solid Barbs football team.

Meanwhile, at the college, football coach Chick Evans needed players. With so many young men away at war, much of the squad was comprised of players who either were classified 4-F (meaning the individual was not fit for military service) or had already returned from the service.

“Coach said to some of the local boys, ‘Why don’t you come and play?’ ” Riippi said. “I said, ‘I’m in the Navy, I’m just waiting to be called.’  He said, ‘Why don’t you come and play, anyway?’ “

Riippi took Evans up on his offer, and the Huskies had a great season. They were undefeated headed into their last game against Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. Before that game, Evans and College President Karl Adams took Riippi aside to tell him that he’d been ordered to report for duty with the Navy the next morning in Chicago.

The Huskies beat the Salukis, 13-12, then had to hustle out of there.

“They were hard losers down there, they wanted to fight,” Riippi said. “They had to escort us back to the hotel.”

The Huskies returned to cheers in DeKalb after their undefeated season, but Riippi missed the party. He made it to Chicago just in time to report for duty on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.

Riippi would be named an All-Interstate Intercollegiate Athletic Conference first team tackle (he played both offense and defense) after that season, and his parents received a bronze football charm with his name on it commemorating the season. He sometimes wears it around his neck to homecoming games, he said.

Riippi himself was preparing for war by then.

“I missed all the hoopla,” he said.

Riippi boarded the light cruiser U.S.S. Columbia, “The Gem of the Ocean,” at Long Beach, Calif., in 1945. The Columbia was in port for repairs after being damaged by Japanese kamikaze attacks in January of that year.

By then, the war in the Pacific was drawing to a close. Riippi saw some action when the Columbia was involved in the invasion of the island of Borneo, but returned to Portland, Maine, in 1946 and made it back to DeKalb just in time for his mother’s funeral.

Back in the Barb City: By 1949, Riippi landed a job with the DeKalb Fire Department. He quit the department in 1952 to try out for the Green Bay Packers. He bulked up to 248 pounds, but an Achilles tendon tear in training camp ruined his chances, he said.

He returned to DeKalb and worked some different jobs, including in his father’s cheese-making factory on Eighth and Oak streets, and married his wife, Jean, in 1953 – they’ll be married 60 years in December.  

By 1959 he was back with the fire department, and he spent the rest of his career there, rising to the rank of chief in 1978 before retiring in 1986.

The fire service changed a lot during his tenure, and even more since. In his early days, there were four firefighters on duty to a shift. Fire calls were more frequent than ambulance calls, as homes included many more flammable materials. Telephone operators and “box alarms” on poles around town alerted the firefighters to calls. 

Firefighters were judged based on their ability to “eat smoke,” air masks hadn’t been introduced, and ambulances were rudimentary.

“In later years when the formica and plastics come along, the firemen would get sick, and they’d wonder what it was,” Riippi said. “It was from [inhaling] all those chemicals when they burned.”

The department grew and evolved along with the city itself, but some things about the job never changed, Riippi said.

“When the phone rings, you’ve got to go help the people and you don’t know what it’s going to be,” he said.

Most of his colleagues from his days at the department have died or moved on, as have most of his teammates from his days at Northern Illinois and shipmates from the Columbia.

But Riippi keeps has his connection with them. They are his piece of history.

His family has had season tickets to NIU games for 27 years along the 45-yard line. He still wears the football he received for playing on that undefeated squad in ’44.

“I go to all [the games], rain or shine, I don’t melt,” he said. “I love the game. I watch the fundamentals.”

And he still listens in to an old scanner at his home so he can hear the fire calls around town.

“I pick up the calls,” he said. “I like to play downtown quarterback.”

Riippi said he’s looking forward to stepping on the football field again on Wednesday.

“Well sure, who would expect something like that, you know?” he said. “At this stage of the game, we’re in the aging process. That’s all history.”

It’s always so interesting, though, to hear history told by those who lived it.

To all our veterans: Thank you for your service.

• Eric Olson is the editor of the Daily Chronicle. Reach him at 815-756-4841 ext. 2257, email, or follow him on Twitter @DC_Editor.

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