Service with a smile

Captain Art Amaro stands with his good friend Moe McHenry during

Art Amaro never set out to become a firefighter. He and longtime
friend Moe McHenry just happened to notice a newspaper
advertisement for new recruits at the Gilroy Fire Department.
Art Amaro never set out to become a firefighter. He and longtime friend Moe McHenry just happened to notice a newspaper advertisement for new recruits at the Gilroy Fire Department. The two tried out for the position at age 19, and both joined the department in 1972 – a decision that Amaro said was the best he has ever made.

On Thursday, Amaro, 57, sporting jeans and a short-sleeve collared shirt, spent his final day with the department as the longest-serving firefighter in Gilroy in recent memory. While the mustachioed, olive-skinned fire captain is soft-spoken, his eyes light up behind his glasses and he brims with enthusiasm when talking about his nearly 38-year career.

“I think it’s the best job in the world,” Amaro said. “There’s a lot of action and a lot of camaraderie with the guys.”

Amaro has served in a host of roles during his time with the department, including a fire apprentice, firefighter, engineer and captain. He served for three years on the fire prevention bureau, which handles business inspections, and eight years as president of Fire Fighters Local 2805, the union that represents Gilroy firefighters. He had previously served as secretary/treasurer and vice president. More recently, he was a Department of Motor Vehicles instructor for the department, conducting training and testing apparatuses for the fire department.

In all of the roles he filled, the aspect he enjoyed most was “being able to help people,” he said.

The recent retiree served under five fire chiefs, starting with Al Brittain in 1972 and ending with current Chief Dale Foster. Department operations were much simpler when he started, Amaro said. Firefighters did not use computers back then and there was no dispatch – department staff handled their own emergency calls, directing firefighters where to go.

Back then, an airhorn sounded to alert firefighters who were not at the station while a wind-up contraption encased in glass and wood at Station 55 contained various numbers that indicated where in town firefighters should go. That device today is on the wall at the entrance of the Chestnut Fire Station, a reminder of former times.

Amaro seems like a bit of a relic himself – many of his coworkers jest that an aging black and white photo of a firefighter on the wall is of him.

Still, Battalion Chief Ed Bozzo said one of the reasons Amaro has done so well with the department is because he has been flexible over the years.

“I think Art did a good job of adapting to all the changes,” he said.

Amaro also was known for his sense of humor, firefighters said.

“The pranks that guy used to pull were unreal,” Bozzo said.

For instance, he recalled one time when Amaro placed a fire cracker under Bozzo’s legs while Bozzo was doing maintenance. Such hazing rituals are no longer allowed, Bozzo said.

Bozzo added that although Amaro could dish it out, “he could take it, too.”

“The only time I ever saw him lose his cool was when we played softball,” Bozzo said with a laugh.

Amaro has fought some memorable fires in town over the years, including a blaze in the mid-1980s that demolished the Drake Apartment building on Fifth Street next to the old Station 55 and a fire at Singleton’s Market in the early 1990s. The department’s baseball team was playing when the Drake Apartment fire started, Amaro said. The team had to forfeit the game, he recalled with a grin.

However, no fire in Gilroy compared to the Oakland hills inferno that he helped extinguish in 1991, when 3,000 homes were consumed by flames in a single evening, Amaro said.

“We were there the whole night,” he said. “There was just a wall of fire everywhere.”

Whether on the field, responding to an emergency or at the station, Amaro said he enjoyed the camaraderie that developed among firefighters, describing them as a family.

“We’re (at the station) for 24 hours” – a common shift for firefighters – Amaro said. “You feel the joy. You feel the pain.”

For instance, the entire department has been grieving since the death last month of Sarah Botill, daughter of firefighter Mike Botill, Amaro said.

Financial issues also have created challenges recently for the department, he said. For instance, the fire department lost six members of Local 2805 and all of its on-call firefighter staff due to cutbacks earlier this year. Amaro recalled spending countless hours on arbitration matters while he served as union president, but he said nothing has been as challenging as the current financial crisis.

“Throughout my career, we’ve had bad times, but never like this,” he said.

Still, he said the rewards of serving on the fire department far outweighed the drawbacks.

Looking ahead, Amaro said he has no immediate plans during retirement. He has been off work because of injuries since May, and he plans to spend time with his family.

“I was hoping to get to 40 years, but with all the injuries I had, it was not going to happen,” Amaro said.

The longtime firefighter had seven surgeries over the years on his knees and shoulders and he expects to have two more. Firefighters must engage in heavy lifting, and their outfits and backpack alone weigh about 80 pounds, he said. In addition, it’s easy to get in awkward positions when lifting ladders or people, Amaro said.

Fellow firefighters say Amaro will be missed.

“Art was a very loyal and dedicated firefighter,” said Jim Buessing, secretary and treasurer of Local 2805. “Art was the type of individual who would always put the other person first.”

Buessing recalled one occasion when Amaro loaned his vehicle to a family whose car had caught fire so they could drive their son down to Santa Barbara to bring him to college.

Joshua Valverde, a fire captain and current president of Local 2805, said that many people looked up to Amaro as a father figure or older brother. Valverde did not think Amaro had any enemies.

Amaro is one of the few firefighters to serve at Station 55 during a time when only one person was needed to staff an engine, Valverde said. His presence will be missed.

“With his departure, we’re losing a lot of the culture and the history of the fire department,” he said.

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