Submitted by Clark Judge, KAA.
(Feb. 17, 2022) — There’s a comical insurance ad on TV where homeowners are advised that they don’t need to become their parents. But try selling that to Killingworth’s Mary Robbenhaar-Fretz.
She knows better.
An EMT and member of the Killingworth Ambulance board of directors, she’s done more than follow her mother’s path most of her adult life. She traced it. Step … by step … by step.
At 30, she pursued her mother’s passion and went into nursing. Decades later she joined the ambulance association’s board. Just like her mother. Then, in 2018, she became an EMT. Just like her mother. Now she makes ambulance runs with her husband, James – Mary in the back, James at the wheel.
Just like her mother … and her Dad.
“You do kind of become your parents,” she said, laughing. “That’s frightening. But what’s really scary is when people around town – particularly the older ones – see me and call me Romanie.”
Romanie was her mother’s name. Romanie Klein-Robbenhaar. Her father was Dolph Klein-Robbenhaar. They met when Romanie was in nursing school in the Netherlands – Amsterdam, to be exact – and soon married. Emigrating to Canada when Mary’s mother was six months short of graduating, they settled in Ottawa and welcomed the first of their four children.
Her name was Mary.
Four years later, Romanie and Dolph moved again — this time to the United States. On the advice of Dolph’s brother, who lived in Killingworth, the family relocated here in 1963 – moving in with Mary’s uncle before finding a permanent home.
And that’s where our story begins.
Fast-forward to February, 1971, when Romanie and Dolph join a group of concerned residents to form the Killingworth Ambulance Association. Both become actively involved, first as board members and then as first responders — making ambulance runs together, with Dolph driving and Romanie in the back.
Sound familiar? It should.
“I have to say my Mom probably got my Dad into it,” Mary said. “He was so busy. He worked 13 hours a day, and they’d be on at night. He’d get home at 6:30, and they’d be on at 7. They were volunteers, and back then, you didn’t have to be as skilled and trained as EMTs are now.
“My Mom was definitely more into it than my Dad. She really loved the hands-on stuff. Her first run was a UPS driver who had a bee sting. That was before EpiPens, and she had to do CPR all the way to New Haven. He didn’t make it.”
Mary attended Morgan High School before moving on to Wesleyan University, where she was a political science major. She envisioned a career as a lawyer but first joined the Peace Corps, teaching children in Niger. That lasted a year. Then it was back to the United States, accompanying a boyfriend to Indiana where she was a youth program director at the local YMCA. Eventually, she found herself back in Killingworth, this time certain what she would pursue next.
“When I was in the Peace Corps,” she said, “I wrote an essay to get into Yale (School of Nursing). I was supposed to teach English in Niger. They were French-speaking kids, who spoke the local language. But they didn’t need to learn English. They needed to learn about good health care and nutrition. That’s when I decided to come back and go into nursing.”
So she did. She gained an associate degree from Quinnipiac’s School of Nursing, then spent 10 years at Yale Hospital as a pediatric RN while working toward a master’s in nursing.
“My Mom was thrilled that I was a nurse,” Mary said. “It sort of fulfilled her dream.”
Three years after Romanie passed away in 2013, Mary joined the KAA board of directors. Two years later, she decided to become an EMT, like her mother and father. So she took the 160-hour course, passed the exam and was certified to do what her mother had done decades earlier.
“For the longest time,” Mary said, “I wanted to volunteer and give back. Then, when I retired in 2018, I thought: Now I have time to devote to this. Really, it was in memory of Mom. The organization meant a lot to her. If my Mom hadn’t been involved with it, I don’t know if I would.”
But she is.
So is husband James Fretz, a self-employed cabinet maker and architectural wood worker. He joined the board with Mary in 2016 and took the EMT course four years later during the COVID pandemic. Like his wife, he passed the exam, and now the two are on call for the KAA from 6 a.m.-6 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
“I probably influenced him,” Mary said, “but I didn’t really push it. I think he just kind of observed and knew we needed people. I said, ‘I just need a driver. If you would drive, it would make me so happy.’ So he took the course.”
He did more than that.
When the Killingworth Ambulance Association last fall celebrated its 50th anniversary, it recognized the top three responders from 2020-21. Board president Dan O’Sullivan and EMT Lisa Anderson were two of them. James Fretz was the third, remarkable in that he wasn’t EMT certified until December, 2020.
“James has been an amazing addition to the KAA,” said O’ Sullivan. “Not only does he cover two days a week with his wife, but he is frequently found on late night calls or on other days when needed to complete a crew. He is a critical part of our team in delivering EMS service to the town.”
Husband-and-wife teams aren’t unusual at the KAA. Mike and Marguerite Haaga are EMTs who serve on the KAA’s board of directors – Mike as the chief of service; Marguerite as the vice-president. Board member Mark Clifton and wife Patty are EMTs, too. But a husband-and-wife team that followed every step – literally – of a mother and father? Rare, though Todd and Lara Hajek are close. Todd’s mother, Irene, is a former EMT and past president and vice president of the KAA board.
“I got involved because of Irene,” said Lara Hajek, an EMT whose brother, father and brother-in-law are – what else? — EMTs.
So forget that TV commercial. Like it or not, we do become our parents. Mary Robbenhaar-Fretz is proof.
“It’s kind of funny,” she said. “When you’re growing up, it’s the last thing you’re going to do, right?”
Photo by Clark Judge.