by Dennis Dalman
Not many people who can say they’ve saved somebody’s life, but what’s even rarer than that is a person who has saved 24 lives.
That person is Joe Furman, 79, of Cold Spring. Along with his trusty Piper Apache airplane, Furman was directly responsible for helping save 24 people – many of whom were minutes from certain death in dire straits.
As if that were not impressive enough, Furman is also remarkable as a superb swimmer. Just two weekends ago Furman won five gold medals and one silver medal at a swim competition at St. Cloud State University.
During a long and productive life, Furman has also been an emergency-medical technician, a medic, a tax-business owner, an aviation teacher, an accounting-auditing-tax teacher, an Air Force Auxiliary member, a member of the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary Aviation, a controller for Abbott Laboratories for Southeast Asia, an employee of Motorola and Sunbeam Corps., a tour of duty in Vietnam in 1967-68, a legal aide and – last but not least – a husband and, with wife Elizabeth, the father of 13 children.
Furman has been honored with virtually every kind of campaign ribbon and medals, including the bronze Medal of Valor.
As a child growing up in Chicago, Furman fell in love with airplanes and the great blue yonder.
“That’s my home,” he said, smiling, pointing up to the sky during a recent interview with the St. Joseph Newsleader.
Furman has flown a total of 4,000 hours virtually everywhere in the world. During all of that time, he viewed his plane as first-and-foremost a search-and-rescue, life-saving vehicle. As a member of the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, Furman was in charge of search-and-rescue missions for the Upper Midwest, including the Great Lakes, where he participated in the saving of the crews of two fishing trawlers and four catamarans.
Of the many lives he helped save, 22 were on water and two on land. The latter involved a male driver of a Corvette that crashed in Illinois. The driver’s cigarette caused the leaking gas tank to explode. Furman pulled the man from the flaming car, burning himself severely in the process. The other incident involved an elderly man found unconscious in his bed on the fourth floor of a burning St. Cloud apartment building in 1976. Furman and another emergency worker hauled the man to safety. Fortunately, nobody died in the apartment blaze.
Furman has a now-or-never attitude toward life.
“I expect to pass through this world only once,” he said. “Therefore, any good thing I can do or any kindness that I can show to any fellow creature, let me do it now. Let me not defer or neglect it because I will not pass this way again.”
Because of a long lifetime of saving lives, Furman seems to have developed an instinct about when and where he might be needed. Time and again, he happened to be in situations in which his life-saving skills proved decisive.
“I guess it’s just faith and being at the right place at the right time,” he said. “That, and a willingness to serve.”
He can vividly recall the time his services were needed when he was in California. At that time, he helped save the life of a seaman who was on a mission in the Pacific Ocean. Furman piloted his plane to a rendezvous to meet the man who’d been severely injured on an Air Force carrier. Furman flew him, in a C-130, to San Diego. During the trip, the injured man required dozens of canisters of oxygen because his chest had been crushed, and he could barely breathe. That was one of the “hairiest” rescues Furman ever accomplished.
Time and again, Furman has experienced what a small world this really is. Some years ago, he stopped at a McDonald’s restaurant in St. Cloud to get a quick bite to go. One of the workers there was dark-skinned and had an accent that Furman recognized.
“Are you from Bangladesh?” Furman asked the young man.
“Yes,” he answered.
Then Furman told him one of his adventure stories.
The man rushed from behind the counter, hugged Furman and said, “Thank you for helping Bangladesh get its independence!”
Furman was stationed in India during the war between West and East Pakistan in 1971-72. An estimated two million people – mostly East Pakistanis – were butchered in the conflict. Furman was requested to fly in emergency-aid supplies to the airport in Dhaka, the capital of East Pakistan that was renamed to Bangladesh after it gained independence in late 1972. Armed forces from West Pakistan went on an indiscriminate killing rampage – a virtual genocide. Their rage was especially vicious toward intellectuals, teachers and students who mostly supported the Bangladeshi independence movement. Furman said he will never forget the sights he saw when his plane landed. People were crawling from underneath buildings where they’d been hiding, and many of them were missing limbs. The shipments of rice and medicines Furman and others brought were welcomed with joy.
Furman, who talks quietly at a relaxed pace, is not one to brag. In fact, he is extremely matter-of-fact about his remarkable life. His attitude is he just did what needed to be done, and helping people is still his guiding motivation.
That same motivation prompts so many of his children. Eight of them did, or are still, serving in the U.S. Armed Forces, including daughter Christine who was a technician on a Hercules gunship in Bosnia-Croatia. Three sons (Andrew, Edmond, Joseph) served in Iraq and Afghanistan at the same time.
Even though he is retired, Furman doesn’t sit still for long. In July, he will travel to Omaha, where he will compete in the U.S. National Masters Swim Meet. If anyone at that meet should need to be saved, Furman is likely the one to do it.