John Marzano is a man of few words. So few in fact, that in preparation for his retirement from the Big Pine Volunteer Fire Department, information on the man who has been integral to the department had to be cobbled together from those who have known him over the years.
Big Pine is throwing a party for Marzano this Saturday at the high school gym. True to form, Marzano didn’t really want a party for simply doing what had to be done for the past 54 years.
In the community of Big Pine, he’s known as Papa John, the fire chief who can be found at the local diner every morning for his cup of coffee. He’s the guy in the cool chief’s truck who has been a reassuring presence since he and his family moved to the area from Ohio in 1959, the same year he joined the department.
With sketchy details on Marzano’s life, what’s left is what he means to Big Pine.
Marzano has been either chief or assistant chief for so long there are few currently involved in the department who remember the exact chronology. His latest tenure as chief started in 2002 but his position as the go-to guy in Big Pine dates back much farther.
Big Pine Civic Club member Jim Kemp met Marzano for the first time when he needed help stringing Christmas lights on the Roosevelt pine tree at the corner of U.S. 395 and S.R. 168. Marzano was working at the Cal Tech “Big Ears” installation north of town. He brought the Cal Tech cherry-picker to get the job done.
When Kemp needed umpires for Little League games, he went to Marzano. “He was right there when you needed him,” Kemp said. “He’s a special person.”
He was special to Bishop Fire Chief Ray Seguine, stepping up as a surrogate father. “He made me feel like part of his family. We’d go wooding, driving in his white Ford pick-up with its spotlights and radio,” Seguine remembered. “I’d be riding around with him wishing he’d get a (fire) call.”
“It’s his dedication that made the department great,” Seguine said. “He stepped up when there was a vacancy; he didn’t want to see it fail.”
Big Pine resident Sandy Lund shares the belief that the BPVFD wouldn’t be what it is today without Marzano. “What the department is now is a direct result of what John’s done,” she said. Lund recalls a Marzano story of heading up Glacier Lodge Road to a wild fire in the department’s old water truck. The vehicle wasn’t in great shape and was creeping unsteadily up the grade when Marzano realized he was gaining speed. He was being pushed up the hill by another volunteer in an old Willy Jeep. Today, all the department’s vehicles make it up the grade under their own speed. Those vehicles have a new garage, the department’s facility has grown into a lot once occupied by the Big Pine Library and the volunteers have a new training tower. All of the above were completed during Marzano’s latest tenure as chief.
Marzano was more to Lund’s family than just a chief. When her mother was widowed, Marzano made sure she had enough wood to last through the winter.
Damon Carrington, the new chief, describes Marzano as “an old school gentleman. It was always neat to be around him. It’s like losing a father figure. The department is like a second family, we all have to trust each other. I have huge shoes to fill.”
The job of fire chief is time consuming, according to Seguine. “You have to give up more time to stay on top of things, maintaining the vehicles, the paper work, the red tape. It’s more demanding now than it used to be,” he said.
Marzano was always good at running the volunteers on calls, working with the 25-30 volunteers and their different personalities, none of whom could be fired, said Rich Coffman, another long-time Piner. “He’s just an all-around good guy,” said Coffman. “He doesn’t want all this attention. He feels he was doing his job.”
According to volunteer fireman Dave Calloway, the department responds to roughly 225 calls a year, 80-90 percent of which are ambulance calls. Marzano was chief when Calloway was a kid growing up in Lone Pine; he was also assistant to Calloway when he headed the department from 1998-2001. “He’s kind of the core of this community,” Calloway said. “He’s always been there.”
While Marzano is, tecnically, retired from the fire department, there’s little doubt he’ll still be there when he’s needed.