When doctors could do nothing more to fight his cancer, it was time for former Eden Prairie Fire Chief Spencer Conrad to come home.
But, the retired firefighter didn’t make the May 13 trip alone. Conrad’s firefighting brothers and sisters escorted Conrad from the University of Minnesota Medical Center in Minneapolis to his Eden Prairie house.
The Eden Prairie Fire Department planned the convoy to pay tribute to Conrad, who served his hometown as a volunteer firefighter for 28 years, 12 as fire chief from 1990-2002.
Initially, his wife Janet asked for one Eden Prairie fire truck to accompany him. But, as he was wheeled out of the hospital, multiple Eden Prairie and Minneapolis fire vehicles were waiting.
Because of his condition, Conrad rode in an ambulance, surrounded by Eden Prairie fire vehicles. As the caravan passed beneath highway overpasses, fire trucks from Richfield and Edina blasted air horns, and firefighters saluted.
The motorcade touched Conrad’s family. On Facebook, Conrad’s daughter-in-law Kelly called it an “incredible tribute to a man who dedicated his life to helping others and serving his community.”
Kelly became emotional while recording the procession coming down Valley View Road.
“You can probably even hear me in the video taking sharp breathes trying to hold back tears,” she said. “The feeling of an overwhelming sense of pride, awe, joy, and sadness all mixed together fluttering in your stomach is probably the best way to describe it. The way time seemed to stop and pay tribute to everything Spence had accomplished in his life in that 1 minute 30 seconds was something I will never forget.”
Though chemotherapy treatments had affected the ability of her brother to form words, Conrad’s sister Cyndee Barnes said he was aware of what was happening. She wasn’t there, but the Austin, Texas, resident was “proud of my little brother” after watching the convoy videos.
“A lot of people thought there was more than one house fire based on the number of sirens they heard,” said Conrad’s brother, Curt, of Eden Prairie.
Conrad, 63, died May 21 from B-cell lymphoma at his home. Services were held on May 27. In lieu of flowers, Conrad’s family asked people to honor him by donating to the Minnesota Fire Initiative (MnFire).
According to his family, Conrad began not feeling well in November 2019. But, it wasn’t until June 2020 that he was diagnosed with cancer.
Relatives say Conrad was responding well to the chemotherapy. But had to discontinue his treatment after getting Covid-19.
“Covid set him back, and he could never get caught up,” said Rita, Curt’s wife.
Conrad has lived in Eden Prairie since 1959, making him nearly a lifelong resident.
The youngest of Wally (who turns 100 in August) and the late Lorrayne Conrad’s three children, he and Janet have one son, Ben, who lives in Bloomington with his wife, Kelly.
“He was the baby,” said Cyndee, the middle child. “He’s not supposed to go first.”
Always helping others
Family and friends remember “Spence” for his big heart, wit, friendly smile, and positive attitude. He always seemed to be the happiest person in the room.
“We always hear a lot about a Minnesota nice,” said Tom, Cyndee’s husband. “Everybody is Minnesota nice. Well, he was exactly that. He was always happy.”
“He would always joke with people,” added Curt. “He’s pretty much well known for his sense of humor.”
Conrad first volunteered with the fire department while in Eden Prairie High School (he graduated in 1975). He followed in the footsteps of his father, who also volunteered.
During his time with the department, he received the Award of Valor (2002) and Firefighter of the Year (1983). He earned the valor award for helping pull an elderly woman to safety from a smoke-filled apartment in 2001.
“That was a (completely) volunteer fire department back then, and he was working full-time (at Physical Electronics) while he was running that show,” Cyndee said. “It was during a time when Eden Prairie was growing gangbusters.”
After he retired from the department, he worked in firefighting equipment sales and training, most recently for Clarey’s Safety Equipment of Rochester.
“Once he left the fire department, he was like the fire chief who sold you what you needed for your fire department all over Minnesota,” Cyndee said. “He knows everybody in Minnesota. He’s got a quick wit and always able to lighten the situation or make you feel good, and everybody got along with him.”
Leaves a legacy of ‘pure grace’
Former Eden Prairie Fire Chief George Esbensen said he has an “unwavering amount of respect and gratitude for Spencer Conrad.”
He said Conrad became the city’s third volunteer fire chief in 1990 when Ron Johnson stepped down to become the full-time fire chief in Brainerd. (Ray Mitchell was the department’s first fire chief.)
Esbensen met Conrad when he joined the department in 1986. At the time, Conrad was the assistant training chief.
“There was kind of an old school going back then where people didn’t spend much time talking to the rookies,” he said. “Spencer was exactly the opposite of that.”
Conrad’s tenure as volunteer chief ended when Esbensen, who retired in 2018, became the city’s first full-time fire chief.
Both Esbensen and Conrad applied for the new position. Esbensen said Conrad had no hard feelings toward him for getting the job, a role “that I know (Conrad) would have loved as I did.”
Conrad stayed on for a while as a volunteer before retiring from the department.
“When they posted (it), I had gone to Spence and told him, ‘I’m not going to apply because I think you should do this. This should be your thing,'” Esbensen said. “He was like ‘Nope, George. I want it to come from the inside. If it’s not me, I think you’d do really well.'”
That, Esbensen said, speaks volumes to Conrad’s character and the legacy of “pure grace” he leaves behind.
“He was the kindest, most caring, and generous person you’ll ever meet,” he said.