It was as a teenager that Anthony Bednarz first walked into the Riverside Fire Station as a paid-on-call firefighter. Following in the footsteps of his father, who joined the force in the early 1940s, Bednarz was right at home in the Riverside fire station.

Through the years, Bednarz climbed the ranks and was named fire chief in 1976. His dad continued on as a firefighter as well, retiring after 47 years on the force in 1985. But after 45 years as a member of the Riverside Fire Department?”30 of them as chief?”Bednarz is seeking a new challenge. On May 19, he’ll resign his familiar post to take over as fire chief in Western Springs.

“Stunned is a word that is catching on with people,” said Village Manager Kathleen Rush, who has worked with Bednarz for the past eight years. “My initial reaction was that he was playing with me.

“Tony has an incredible command of institutional memory of the village, and not just of the fire department,” Rush said. “That helps frame a lot of choices for not just me [but other department heads]. It helps us understand what’s happened before.”

But the move has been in the works since earlier this year, said Bednarz, when he was approached by Western Springs Village Manager Patrick Higgins to interview candidates for that village’s open fire chief position.

“They had been trying to recruit a fire chief since last September, and the way we operate is almost identical to the way they operate,” Bednarz said. “Eventually he asked if I was interested, and then?”here we are.”

Bednarz, 63, was officially appointed chief at a meeting of the Western Springs village board Monday night. Calls to Higgins seeking comment were not returned before press time.

Because Western Springs operates a paid-on-call department, the transition for Bednarz should be an easy one. According to Bednarz, the departments are roughly the same size, although Western Springs responds to some 350 fewer calls per year.

Western Springs is in the midst of a development boom, however, and the department is attempting to respond to those changes. The village plans on building a new fire station south of the Burlington Northern-Santa Fe railroad tracks to react to major development in that part of town.

“It was a tough decision; it’s a challenge,” said Bednarz, who will draw a pension from the Village of Riverside once he leaves the department. “But I’ll be able to do things there that I can’t do here, like building a new fire station.”

While Riverside Village President Harold J. Wiaduck Jr. and village trustees will discuss the matter of finding a new chief in upcoming executive sessions, a front-runner has emerged as Bednarz’s replacement.

Wiaduck hinted that Assistant Fire Chief Kevin Mulligan, who will serve as interim fire chief during the transition, is at the top of his list of candidates.

“I don’t want to tie our hands, but we have an able candidate already in place in Kevin Mulligan,” Wiaduck said. “I don’t have any reason to believe he won’t accede to this position.”

Mulligan said he found out about Bednarz’s departure within the last week, and was taken by surprise.

“Yes, I was very surprised,” said Mulligan, who is a full-time lieutenant for the Pleasantview Fire Protection District. “He’s been a great friend and mentor. he’s also been here a long period of time and I didn’t expect him to take another position.”

As far as his interest in replacing Bednarz as chief, Mulligan, a Riverside resident since 1977, said “I’m interested in working with the village and continuing in whatever capacity that’s best for the fire department.”

For his part, Wiaduck, who has known Riverside’s fire chief since the two were classmates at Fenwick High School in Oak Park, said that Bednarz’s leadership will make the transition to a new chief a fairly seamless one.

“Fortunately he’s done an excellent job organizing the department and a succession plan,” Wiaduck said, “making this easier than it might have been.”

Rush said she’ll miss Bednarz’s comprehensive knowledge of the village and its history as well as his frank, sometimes gruff, counsel.

“When I ask him a question I can always count on an honest reply,” Rush said. “He might not always have the same opinion I have, but we continue to respect each other. That’s the biggest thing I’ll miss about him, personally.”