Farewell to a hometown hero

John Christensen
Penn Yan Fire Department members lead the procession of area fire fighters paying respect to the late Paul Kubli, former Penn Yan Fire Chief and long-time volunteer.

The “grand old man” of the Penn Yan Fire Department, Paul Kubli, passed away Tuesday, July 3, 2018 at Geneva General Hospital having reached the age of 99 in remarkable health and vitality. (See obituary on page 6.)

The Weldon Funeral Home parlor was filled to capacity during his service at noon Saturday, with many of the seats occupied by those in full dress uniform from numerous departments in the region. After Paul passed away in Geneva General Hospital, PYFD Chief Bill LaRock described the honor the Geneva Fire Dept. made of escorting Paul’s hearse to the county line, where they met the Penn Yan Fire Dept. to continue the escort into the village. That is just one gesture indicating the extraordinary position of regard and esteem Paul held among firefighters.

Just two days before his passing, Paul adhered to his daily routine of driving himself to the firehouse for coffee and conversation with his fellow firemen who were as always amazed by his razor-sharp memory and grasp of matters both old and new. Just weeks ago he could still be seen walking the treadmill in the PYFD gym or climbing a stepladder to clean the kitchen there. But these final days were just part and parcel of his remarkable life that began and ended in the town he loved so well.

Paul was born in March 1919 on Maiden Lane, just steps away from where the current Penn Yan Firehouse now stands. He began his habit of hard and productive work at the age of five in the Basket Factory on North Avenue. After graduating from Penn Yan Academy in 1936, he became a master cabinet maker and architectural draftsman at Walkerbilt until it closed in 1974. He continued working until retiring from Penn Yan Boats in 1984.

Many would think a day in a factory would be plenty of hard work for a man and deserving of rest at the end of it. Paul was not such a man. His house on Keuka Street is the one he designed and built with his own hands in 1952 for his wife, Kathryn, and eventually his children, Kurt, Marty, Bruce, and Mary. In her tribute to her father Saturday, Mary Kubli said, “Growing up, we harvested and froze all our fruits and vegetables every year to save money. None of our friends had to do this. He’d round us up to pick at some ungodly early hour, and we thought it was slave labor. Now they call it organic gardening,” she added with laughter from the crowd.

As hard as it may have seemed then, Paul also worked hard to make sure they enjoyed life, too. “He liked all kids and they liked him,” said Mary. “The neighborhood skated on the ice rinks he built in our backyard in the 60s; he built toychests and racetracks and iceboats, and he played alongside of us. His station wagon ferried loads of kids to Little League games with stops at the Tastee Freez or Carrols in Geneva. ‘Papa Kubli’ was still going to games, riding the bus with Marty’s softball team in recent years. Every kid who walked through our front door was welcomed with interest — with conversation, jokes, and cookies.”

That kind nature and long life could easily have been very different. Paul was one of the first to answer the call to serve in World War II even before the U.S. entered the war. In the oral history Mary recorded and transcribed from him regarding his service, Paul remembered, “Well, they had a registration before the war. Germany was beating everybody, and we started to prepare for war.” Paul enlisted in the Army in March 1941. “There were six or eight of us from Penn Yan — me and Charlie (Brown), Jake Van Buren, and some other fellows from Branchport and from Yates County.” He served until March of 1945 in the U.S. “Island Hopping” campaign in the South Pacific as a member of the 43rd Division, 118th Combat Engineers, Company B, and was attached to the 169th Infantry. He fought at Guadalcanal, the Solomons, New Guinea, and the Philippines, sometimes behind enemy lines, and received the Bronze Star for heroic service in combat.

It was perhaps that comradeship in danger and service to others that brought Paul and veterans like him to join the Penn Yan Fire Department. There were so many joining after the war, Paul had to wait until June 7, 1949 before a slot opened; otherwise his incredible years of service to his “other family” would have been longer still. And though Paul was small in physical stature, the impression he leaves behind him as a man is that of a giant and a true hometown hero.