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Joe Harpring | The Republic Mike Ferrenburg made photos of a collapsed grain bin at the farm of Henry and Kathleen Whipker east of Columbus May 25, 2011, the day waves of violent weather moved through the region. Besides his own work as af firefighter, for years Mike Ferrenburg documented the work of emergency workers as they responded to all manner of calamity in and around Bartholomew County.
When doctors talked to Michael Ferrenburg after his first lung surgery in 1981, they suggested he might have six more months of life.
They had removed half of one of his lungs, a necessity owing to the cancer that had been traced to his U.S. Army service in Vietnam from 1965 to 1967.
Ferrenburg was one of thousands of U.S. soldiers who had absorbed a chemical called Agent Orange into their system during the Vietnam conflict.
Tragically, it was a chemical that U.S. forces had dropped on the Vietnamese countryside to defoliate forests and rural areas in an effort to deprive enemies of cover. It had another effect, however. It caused cancer and other illnesses among those it touched.
“Mike was in one of the areas that was sprayed,” recalled his Columbus friend, Gary Bowles. “He was there for about a month, and his uniform was totally saturated (by the chemical).”
The effects of the chemical were not immediately apparent. It would not be until around 1981 that he developed some of the symptoms that led to his first surgery.
He defied the doctor’s estimates and lived well past their six-month time frame.
About 10 years later, he again developed troubling symptoms. This time physicians at the Veterans Affairs Hospital in Indianapolis removed two thirds of his other lung.
The surgery proved successful again, and the man who had grown up in Jennings County, but lived most of his adult life in Bartholomew County, was able to rejoin his family.
He was designated as totally disabled, but he couldn’t entertain the idea of sitting around the house. He offered to volunteer with the Columbus Volunteer Fire Department.
In his 26 years of service to the department, he never fought a fire.
He did take pictures, however.
“Thousands of them,” his son, Rodney, now the chief of the volunteer department, said Friday. “They just weren’t pictures of fires. He would shoot accidents and any other kind of event the department might be called out for. They were more than a record. He shot video as well as still shots, and we were able to use them for training purposes.”
Bowles laughed at mention of his friend’s dedication to photography. “Yeah, someone gave him a cap that had the word ‘photo’ across the top. He wore that with pride.”
There is no record of how many incidents Ferrenburg photographed. But although his condition prohibited him from actively fighting fires, he considered himself a member of the department. So did the 45 other members.
Although he had received reprieves from his two surgeries, the cancer caused by Agent Orange had become only temporarily dormant. It came back last year.
This time, there would be no reprieve.
Ferrenburg died Thursday night at Our Hospice of South Central Indiana. He was 67 years old.
“The last few weeks were pretty rough,” Rodney said. “Despite all that he went through, he never expressed any bitterness about service in Vietnam or even the Agent Orange.”
At the time of his first surgery, there was still a reluctance by many in the military to acknowledge that the Agent Orange that had been sprayed across the war-torn country was related to the post-war illnesses reported by thousands of veterans.
“Near the end, Dad talked about that, but he always had positive things to say about his treatment,” Rodney said. “In fact, he often said that he was thankful that the VA doctors had given him 31 more years than he had expected.”
That outlook carried over into all other aspects of his life.
“Mike would do anything for you when asked,” Bowles said. “He was a real trooper. He never complained about what had happened to him. I don’t think he ever had an enemy.
Although he was never able to don any firefighting gear, his fellow volunteers on the department considered him one of their own.
He will be accorded the same honors as any firefighter at his funeral service at 10:30 a.m. Monday at Barkes, Weaver & Glick Funeral Home on Washington Street with burial to follow at Garland Brook Cemetery.
It is likely that his camera will be a featured part of that service.
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