'I love my job so much that at 31 years, I've never gone to work'

'I love my job so much that at 31 years, I've never gone to work'

URBANA — Today, anyone who knows him will tell you that 31-year veteran Chuck Lauss is a firefighter through and through.

But it wasn't always that way for Urbana's newly appointed fire chief, whose original post-high-school plans called for enrolling at Lincoln Christian College, then joining the ministry.

While growing up in Pekin, his parents instilled in him a sense of altruism. Service-oriented but with little money for school, Lauss pursued other ways he might give back.

That led him to firefighting — a line of work that involves a lot more giving than receiving, he discovered soon after getting to know those who do it for a living.

"It's truly what they want — to give back," Lauss said. "They want to serve and make a scene a little better when they leave than when they got there. They're public servants as a whole."

Not many firefighters have the resume Lauss has put together in more than 30 years on the job, much of it in his hometown department.

He served in all ranks in Pekin, including 6 1/2 years as chief, before moving on to Peoria, where he was hired as assistant chief and promoted after two years to the top spot.

But he still remembers the early days.

During his first week as a rookie in Pekin, Lauss recalls a fellow new member of the department quitting after just two shifts. That firefighter had just seen a woman fall off a curb and hit her head.

"And the head bleeds a lot," Lauss said. "The first day I was relieving him, he had pillow and blankets and everything in hand. Said he was moving stations. But then I heard he was done. It wasn't for him."

Not every rookie makes it. But the ones who do will find out that "joining the fire service is the best decision of your life," Lauss said, repeating part of his pep talk to newcomers.

"Then I tell them to set their sights on this chair," he said.

As Lauss rose through the ranks himself, he felt that going back to school might help in continuing his career.

"First thing I did was get my associate's degree," he said. "And that's what lit the proverbial fire under me to keep going."

Lauss then enrolled at Western Illinois, where he received a bachelor's degree in fire administration. Two years later, he went back for his master's, which he followed up with another master's, in leadership, from Grand Canyon University in Phoenix.

Not done with being a student quite yet, he also enrolled at the National Fire Academy and graduated from the executive officer program.

Lauss owes the stability he felt while juggling full-time work and part-time school to his family. His 28-year-old daughter, Beth Lauss of Portland, Ore., even tutored him in Spanish.

"I had a family that totally supported me," he said. "As firefighters, we like that physical aspect of the work. But being able to accomplish the studying and homework was really something nice to do."

Through his career as a student, Lauss said he learned the interpersonal aspects of being a leader.

"Communication has been the thing that has stuck with me so strongly," he said. "Building relationships is very important. A big part of communication is listening, and I think that we need to listen more."

Peoria fire Chief Mike Vaughn called Lauss "the most genuine, nicest person I've ever met."

"I've known him for 30-plus years now," Vaughn said. "He's someone who has his priorities set to help the people he works with and serves with. He's collaborative. He knows he's the ultimate decision-maker, but yet he seeks out input from everyone to try to make the best decision he can for the department. He really, truly cares about the fire service."

Lauss can't imagine doing anything else.

"I love my job so much that at 31 years, I've never gone to work," he said.

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