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In tribute: Becker Spaun, train buff, retired firefighter, had a myriad of stories to tell

Becker Spaun, circa Christmas 1950, playing with his Christmas train. His mother, Mary Louise Spaun, is pictured adoring this little prodigy. Photo contributed by Linda Spaun.


Curled and cracked 1950’s era black and white snapshots, tucked away for decades in the top drawer of his mother’s dining room buffet, served as a precursor to who young Becker Spaun would become.

The first, and cherished son of William Becker and Mary Louise Robinson Spaun, William Becker Spaun Jr., took his first breath on Feb. 7, 1949. Those early Christmas photographs - taken and printed by his doting father - serve as a looking-glass into the future.

There, on the floor of his parents’ bungalow, is a toddler Becker, seated beside train tracks, at the helm of the train controls. In yet another photo, little Becker is pictured with a toy fire truck.

Model trains and fire trucks would play a important role in Becker’s life.

In virtually each house where he lived, both before and after his marriage to his beloved Linda Stevenson on Labor Day weekend in 1970, there was a train set in the basement.

First, at 2929 McKinley, where he grew up, and then at 2 Wauneta, 39 Surrey Hills, 36 Heritage and ultimately on Hummingbird Lane, all in Hannibal, Mo., he built from plywood and an ever-connecting series of switches and wiring, an intricate and massive train landscape, in the HO scale. Engineered from his imagination, each train set he built was more expansive than the last.

Man of many stories

All who knew Becker will remember his penchant for telling stories. A few of his favorites, sometimes in his own words, offer a glimpse into his work career.

M.E. Pennewell, Becker’s first boss, maintained a strict regiment while operating the Mark Twain Dinette. From Mr. Pennewell, and later LeRoy Witthaus, Becker learned the ins and outs of restaurant operation and management.

But his tenure at the dinette was not without incident. One night, while still in high school, he was working as a car hop. Something happened, and Becker quit. He drove home, where his father was waiting. After giving Becker a stern lecture about never leaving a job without first giving notice, he pointed to his teen-aged son’s shirt pocket. Mr. Pennewell taught his young car hops to put the $20 bills in their shirt pockets before making change. A folded bill was clearly visible in the pocket of Becker’s white shirt. Becker not only went back to the dinette to return Mr. Pennewell’s $20 bill, but also went back to work. After earning a bachelor’s degree in education from Northeast Missouri State in 1971, he would return to the dinette, working as manager.

Becker, by the mid 1970s, was discontent. He wanted to be a firefighter.

When applications for the fire department opened, a key job requirement was to have a working knowledge of the streets of Hannibal. Before GPS, Becker learned the intricate nuances of the Hannibal street system. He was hired by Chief Tommy McLaughlin.

One of the first major fires that Becker was called upon to fight was the P.N. Hirsch fire at Sixth and Broadway on April 8, 1979. "That was the first time I rode in the front seat of the pumper on the way to a fire. I hadn’t been there for more than 35 days,” he said. “Somewhere I still have all the VHS tapes that Chuck McPheeters (working as a reporter for KHQA-TV) made.”

Becker himself described a fire at Martha’s Letter Shop on Market Street circa 1979.

“Ones and twos went out there with the snorkel truck,” he said. “It was not too long after I started at the fire station, because I was riding on the back of No. 1 pumper. They can’t do that any more.

“The fire was in the attic and on the second floor. The snorkel got the plug off of Market street and we (Frank Desmond and Becker) took the one that was down off Lindell avenue. I took the inch and a half hose; I went to the east side (of the building); they found the fire on the west side.”

Inside the building, “I used up a whole bottle of air looking for the fire,” Becker said. “By then threes had come down to help us, and next thing I know, when I’m leaning out the windows to get some air, I saw threes leaving with the lights on. There was a fire at the old Hannibal Quincy Truck Line building, and they had already started calling in off duty firemen” in order to fight both fires simultaneously.

The most complex fire Becker was called to fight was at the Hannibal-LaGrange College Administration Building in 1989. When the building’s roof collapsed, Becker’s helmet was knocked off his head by falling debris. They found it a couple of days later, floating in the building’s water-filled basement.

Becker’s retirement from the Hannibal Fire Department on April 3, 1995, led to another career opportunity. For the next 16 years, he worked for the Hannibal Council of Alcohol and Drug Abuse, working with both men and women who were struggling with addictions.

This led to his affectionate and lasting nickname, “Mr. Becker.”

During all the years that followed, when he ran into former clients, they still referred to him by this moniker.

Becker retired from this career in 2015.

His final job - albeit unpaid - was that of a pastor’s spouse. After their son, Billy’s tragic death in 2004, Linda went into training to become a United Methodist minister, and ultimately took charge of Scott’s Chapel UMC. Becker, loyally at her side, developed an audio visual component for the church, which he continued to operate until his death.

After Billy’s death, long-time friends, Chris and Cindy Combs, very generously shared their grandchildren. So Grandpa Becker got to spoil another generation, taking the children out for milkshakes, and anywhere they wanted to go.

After a bravely battling a staph infection for nine days at Hannibal Regional Hospital, he was transferred to the University of Missouri Medical Center, where he finally succumbed. He died within 24 hours of his transfer.

Note: Mary Lou Montgomery is one of Becker Spaun’s younger sisters.

This unidentified cartoon was in Becker Spaun's scrapbook.

P.N. Hirsch fire, Sixth and Broadway, Hannibal, Mo., April 8, 1975. Becker Spaun was a cub fireman. "That was the first time I rode in the front seat of the pumper on the way to a fire. I hadn’t been there for more than 35 days,” he said.

Becker Spaun, front row, poses with his grandparents, Floyd and Bertha Becker Spaun, and his younger sister, Mary Lou, circa 1952. The elder Spauns lived at Atchison, Kansas.


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