Friends and colleagues of San Luis Obispo Fire Chief John Callahan remembered him Thursday for his wisdom, humor, leadership and ability to bring a sense of calm to difficult situations.
Callahan, who died Wednesday of an apparent heart attack, was looking forward to spending more time with family and on community activities once he retired in November — exactly five years after he was appointed to lead the department.
“He always had a gleam in his eye,” said San Luis Obispo Fire Inspector John Madden, who recalled Callahan’s dry wit. “Even when under pressure, he took everything in stride.”
Callahan, 61, died after collapsing Wednesday evening during a softball game with the city team at Santa Rosa Park in San Luis Obispo.
City Manager Katie Lichtig said Callahan was running from first to second base at 7:23 p.m. when he suddenly collapsed. City employees performed CPR until firefighters and paramedics arrived.
Callahan was transported to Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead a short time later. An official cause of death is still to be determined.
Sheriff Pat Hedges arranged to have a member of the department’s Aero Squadron fly to pick up Callahan’s wife, Lynne, who was in South Lake Tahoe at the time.
Callahan’s body was first taken to Reis Family Mortuary and then transported Thursday to Los Osos Valley Mortuary, where a police officer and a firefighter will remain until a memorial service takes place, police Capt. Ian Parkinson said.
Counseling has been provided for city employees.
Callahan didn’t wait long after moving to San Luis Obispo from Southern California five years ago to become involved in community organizations and establish friendships with his colleagues, according to those who knew him well.
“He was a real gem,” said Jenifer Rhynes, chief executive officer of the YMCA of San Luis Obispo County. Callahan had just ended a term as the YMCA’s board president.
“John is an all-in kind of guy,” she said. “He is going to do what it takes to do that job well.”
San Luis Obispo Mayor Dave Romero said Callahan had a wide range of interests, from fly fishing to scuba diving to flying, and was working on a pilot’s license.
Callahan was proud of the city’s new dispatch center at Fire Station 1 and the fire department’s new 100-foot ladder truck, Romero said.
Lichtig, who came to San Luis Obispo in January, said, “In this short time, I’ve come to know him as a man of wit, humor and wisdom.”
Callahan’s 37-year career included 32 years with the Los Angeles Fire Department, where he worked his way up through the organization, retiring as a deputy chief.
In 2008, Callahan suffered complications from shoulder surgery and ended up in Stanford Medical Center for treatment for two pulmonary embolisms. He said at the time it was both reassuring and alarming that the department ran well during his medical leave.
In September 2006, he became a member of the Rotary Club of San Luis Obispo de Tolosa and was serving as its community service director.
“I would say anybody that met him was better for it,” membership chairman Carl Dudley said.
In March, Callahan was surprised with a Lifetime Achievement Award during the 18th annual San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce’s Public Safety Appreciation Luncheon.
After the event, he replied to an e-mail to colleagues and community members.
“As you all probably know, I am much more comfortable handing out awards to others rather than being recognized myself,” Callahan wrote. “I consider myself to be unbelievably lucky in my life to have had the opportunities I have had.”
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Remembering Fire Chief John Callahan
A memorial service is pending; arrangements are being handled by Reis Family Mortuary. In lieu of flowers, donations can be sent to the YMCA of San Luis Obispo County, to CASA of San Luis Obispo County or to the Los Angeles Firemen’s Relief Association. Cards and other condolences can be sent to the Fire Department’s Fire Station 1 at Broad and Santa Barbara streets.