By John Voelker

I want to take this opportunity to announce that the 2000 Holiday Toy season will have been my last as Chairman of the Fire Fighters Toy Program. It’s been 11 long years, and it’s time to hang up the old Santa suit. We’ve been here through mayors Agnos, Jordan and Brown. Chiefs Postel, Medina, Demmons, and Tabacco. And Local 798 Presidents Ferguson, Ahern and Hanley. I’ve seen a lot of change since I took over in 1990, but the one thing that has remained constant was and is the tremendous volunteers who make this program run. We’ve had active and retired firefighters, their spouses and families. Many friends of the program have come and gone during my 11 year tenure. It is a family here at the Toy Program, and that will be one of the hardest things to leave behind.

This family of ours, these past years, has shared laughs, mourned loved ones, sang innumerable off key Christmas carols and most of all we brought the joy of Christmas to thousands of kids. We may have been pissed off when someone would drive up in a shiny new car to pick up their toys or we may have griped when a group of people would pile off the bus out front just when we thought we could lock the door for the day. But more often than not, I’d see volunteers loading up those bags, handing them over to grateful parents with a weary grin and a lame joke only to move onto the next bag. This is the Toy Program. This is our extended family. This is what brought me back year after year. And this will be hard to leave behind.

Over the years the Toy’s has risen to new heights and grown tremendously. We took a boarded up decrepit old building and transformed it to the nerve center it is today. Window security screens replaced the plywood boards. We painted the building, built a garage and got cement donated to fill in the back yard so we could set the storage containers in place. In the old dormitory we built offices, and made a sorting center for our mountains of toys.

A few other things come to mind on what we’ve all accomplished. During the El Nino years, we delivered toys to flood victims in Salinas Valley, Napa, Sonoma and the Russian River areas. We sent a container of toys to Bosnia with Chief Bob Boudoures. A truckload of toys was rushed to Southern California for the Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA) in response to the Northridge earthquake. This year another truck was sent to Kings City. We were able to try and save Christmas in this farming community where a church full of toys for kids of striking farm workers went up in flames. We are in constant contact with the American Red Cross and always able to mobilize on a minutes notice when they call us to respond to a disaster. No matter what we are facing, I was always able to get volunteers to “suit up and go in” as we say in the business. Or more appropriately, someone was always there to drive the toys to where they needed to go and make the lives of needy children a little bit brighter. Responding to need or disasters in the community is what the San Francisco Fire Department is all about. I will deeply miss that sense of camaraderie, devotion and dedication when I leave the Toy Program.

My most favorite and long running memories have been of our lunch program during the holidays. The smiles of laughter and burps were worth every hour of lost sleep. For 11 years, this has always been a hit and for 11 years you gave me the chance to be the Dave Letterman or Jay Leno of the Toy Program. Be it the goofy raffles we used to have, blurting out it was someone’s birthday (for the third time that week), or getting EXTREMELY HAPPY firefighter cooks to sing a karaoke Christmas carol, it would perk me up and make me feel better no matter how tired or down I was. A statement I’ve told friends often over the years is to make a volunteer program work, you’ve got to keep the volunteers happy. And that’s one thing I always strove to do as long as I’ve been Chairman. Sometimes it’s tough on days when you’re exhausted, stressed, etc. But put a microphone in my hand with a roomful of friends that are laughing at my jokes and it just has magical rejuvenating powers. And that is something I’m really going to miss.

To some of the outstanding people this year, and I apologize if I miss you as I tend to do every year, thank you to Ray Connors, Phil Reid, Jack Voelker, Bill Britt, Bill Graham, Jim Dowd, Dan Cronin, Mike & Jimmy Mannion, Uncle Joe and Aunt Nancy, Charlie Toney, Mary Lou, Anne Henderson, Bill Bassett, Mario Busalacchi, John Ahern, Greg Barron, Gilbert Fragoso, Victor Garcia, Keith Oneishi, Dave Thompson, Tony Bendik, Bob Arzave, Pat Hannan, Warren House, Joel Sato, Brendan Ward, Mike Cuddy, Steve Giacalone, Bob Lopez, and Louis Ramirez. I want to thank John Hanley and the Executive Board of Local 798. And a special, special thanks to my light-duty people, Pat Moran, Kevin McKeon, Robin Prosh, Ben Canedo and our early bird Theresa Kwan.

Lastly, to the staff that’s worked with me over these years, I couldn’t have done it without you. Thank you Joanne for doing the groups. To Greg Stewart and Melissa for your years with me. In my early days, Patty Coffey. Up to my current staff this year, Marie, Ryane and especially Jennifer. And last but not least, I want to thank my good friend, dear buddy who I sometimes want to strangle, but he kept the place going, Marcello Cibrian Jr. better known as Cello.

I want this program to continue. It’s the ship and not the captain. It’s been fifty years of tradition, and I’d like to see it go fifty more. A great man, my father Jack, has told me over the years that don’t think that because I’m the one stirring this pot the water would stop flowing without me. Someone else can come along and do it. And now Melissa Lerma has agreed to take over the program. I want this program to run as it has for years. I hope for the same support from everyone for Melissa’s administration.

I want to thank those that have passed on, friends and family that I loved so much. These people and their memories truly brought me back to the program. So now its time to say goodbye. But you never know. When Santa’s out in his trailer, give him a good look. He might have real red eyes or might fit that costume a little too well. You’ll never know who’s behind that beard. So one more time for me:

“Jingle Bell, Jingle Bell, Jingle Bell Rock. Jingle Bell Swing and Jingle Bell Ring. Dancin’ and Prancin’ in Jingle Bell Square, in the Frosty Aiiiiirrrrree!”


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