A Furrowed Good-Bye

The retirement party held for outgoing Montecito Fire Chief Ron McClain (who has been with MFD since 1974) was a rowdy affair, attended as it was by some 150 friends, relatives (Ron’s mom really was there – Ron’s father, Carl McClain, was a Santa Barbara City firefighter), co-workers, and acquaintances. Men were mostly dressed in Hawaiian shirts and slacks; Ron showed up wearing a Hawaiian shirt, short pants, and slippers. The ladies dressed in various levels of “retirement” duds, from Muu muus and hibiscus flowers in their hair to slacks and pearls around their necks. The event, put together by MFD Administrative Secretary Geri Simmons took place at the former Radisson Hotel newly named Mar Monte on Cabrillo Boulevard on Saturday evening, October 7th.

Among those 150 attendees were Vicky Harbison, Dana and Andrea Newquist, Roy and Gibby Jensen, Dick Shaikewitz, Bob Collector, John and Christy Venable, former Montecito Fire Chief Herb McElwee, current City of Santa Barbara Fire Chief Ron Prince, former Montecito Association President and Fire District Board member Dan Eidelson, and many, many others.

A series of Post-It-Note bulletin boards spilled over with good-bye messages from compatriots on a first-name basis: Maureen, for example, wrote cryptically on a ‘Remember This?’ notepad, “When you climbed in the back seat and got your butt stuck in the door at Lake Tahoe.” A ‘Ponder This’ note from Robert & Vickie suggested that Ron should “Laissez Les Bons Temps Roulez.” Patty P. admonished, “We only experience brief moments of madness; never miss the moments.” Dan and Connie Koski wrote, “The degree to which Ron and I enjoyed our tennis games was directly related to whether we had our margaritas before or after the first serve.” Another read, “Hey Ron, you’ve got the sun in your face, the wind at your back and no smoke in sight; life is good, right? Best Wishes from MSD.” Among all the notes, however, was MFD firefighter Keith Powell’s straightforward message that summed up the sentiments of all: “It’s been a pleasure and an honor to be a member of this fire department, and I know that because of you this fire department is a proud one, respected by many.”

The Eyebrow Theme

When it came time to honor Chief McClain, recently retired Santa Barbara City Fire Chief Warner McGrew was the first to bring up the subject of McClain’s celebrated eyebrows. “Ron,” he said, “I don’t know if you’ve noticed or not, but your eyebrows are way out there.” He then presented McClain with a “gold-plated” hedge trimmer featuring a half-horsepower motor, with which Ron could trim his eyebrows. “This baby really works,” Warner joked.

Kevin Wallace, Montecito’s new Fire Chief, took the mic to remind folks that Ron “was into vegetation management” and would now be able to take care of his own vegetation with his new gas-powered trimmer.

Vicky Harbison presented Ron with a basket covered with artificial turf; underneath a “divot” was a packet of “green”-fee cash, collected from members of the Montecito Emergency Response & Recovery Action Group (MERRAG). She thanked him for the excellent community relations he had fostered over his time as chief, and even before that, saying it had been “a privilege” to work with him.

Linual White, Lompoc Fire Chief, representing the Fire Chiefs Association of Santa Barbara County, was there with retired Lompoc Chief Ed Casarez, and presented Ron with a plaque of appreciation.

Retired U.S. Forest Service officer Dennis Cooper worked with Ron as his Planning Section Chief with the California National Incident Management Team 2. Dennis explained that he was in the habit of sketching and writing about every fire he went to on a coffee mug and revealed that he had saved and stored “about twenty years worth of those cups.” He had brought his favorite cup with him to a desert fire at which he fought alongside Ron, who apparently felt responsible for losing Dennis’s cup and spent the better part of two days searching for it. They eventually found the cup, and in memory of that search, Dennis presented Ron a framed photo of it (along with a bottle of Bombay gin, for mixing their favorite after-fire drink: gin and tonic).

Jim Espinoza presented Ron a plaque for his exemplary service on behalf of the Fire Districts Association of California.

Fire Management Officer Brad Joos, representing the U.S. Forest Service, noted that a traditional retirement gift among Forest Service personnel is a “Smokey Blanket.” He said he and his wife had found a special edition Smokey Blanket that seemed appropriate for the occasion, featuring blazing red overgrown eyebrows. The image, Brad intoned, was of Smokey the Bear before he got burned over. Brad said both he and his wife were stunned with the similarities between Smokey and Chief McClain.

“I have to admit,” Ron joked, “that one of the reasons I retired was to get one of these blankets before they ran out of them!”

MFD Wildland Fire Specialist Curtis Vincent said “the community has a lot to be thankful for,” but that they had decided not to give Ron anything. Instead, Curtis presented Ron’s wife, Barbara, with a gift certificate for a day at a spa “for all the times his pager went off” and spoiled her plans.

Stand-up Comic

Evan Skei, representing the Montecito Firefighters Association, wearing spectacles and bushy eyebrows, thanked Brad Joos and Warner McGrew “for working this joke to death” before he got up there. Evan noted that McClain had “been with the Montecito Fire Department since 1974 (pause), which is also the year I was born.” On behalf of the Association, he presented McClain with a “cheater” to determine how far the flag is on any golf course. Engraved on it, were the words: “Chief Ron McClain, to help you find your way through retirement. Best Wishes, the Montecito Fire Department.” Another gift from the firefighters was a copy of the book: “How To Keep Your Volkswagen Alive; Step-by-step Procedures for the Complete Idiot.” The McClains expect to travel in their Volkswagen Van.

Then, a couple of firefighters delivered a genuine (and heavy) special psychedelic, mushroom-shaped AP Smith fire hydrant, signed by the firefighters, and designed by Keith Powell and Rod Walkup

The three members of Montecito Fire District Board of Directors – John Venable, Dana Newquist, and Roy Jensen – got up to say their mutual good-byes, and Roy Jensen said poignantly and in a broken voice, “It’s just about over for you and I… You’re the last person now to join our company before I got on the board and it’s been a pleasure for me to watch you grow into all your positions.” He obviously meant it.

Chief Wallace apologized to McClain for not having the traditional leather firefighter’s helmet on hand that all retirees receive; it was “in the mail,” so Kevin used his own as a prop. Then, borrowing an expression from his wife, who is German, he offered McClain a heartfelt “auf wiedersehen, which doesn’t mean good-bye,” he said, but “until we meet again.”

“It’s been a wonderful career,” Ron admitted when he took the microphone. He recalled that he was the last firefighter hired by former chief Norm Vincent, who couldn’t make it to the party. McClain said he knew the last firefighter he had hired and hoped he “would be at his retirement party in about thirty years and be just as obnoxious as I will be later tonight.”

He added that the great thing about this event was that he had a group of old friends with him from junior high school, and Barbara had a group of friends that she’s known since junior high; nearby was a group of new friends from San Fernando Valley, family members (including his mother), and co-workers. Even the bandleader, Debbie Olivos, was an old high-school friend of McClain’s.

“People call me up to express how thankful they are for the service they’ve gotten from the Montecito Fire Department,” Ron concluded, “and I have been so proud to be a part of that. That’s the mushy stuff. Now I’m ready to start the party and want to eat my cheesecake, because that was a special thing for me. Thank you all.”

Then he graciously acknowledged the standing ovation he so deservedly received.