Hundreds of John Callahan’s family members, friends and colleagues filled the Performing Arts Center at Cal Poly on Friday to celebrate his life — a testament to how many people he touched during his five years as the San Luis Obispo fire chief.
“It’s amazing how fast he became integrated into the community and how many lives he touched,” said former San Luis Obispo City Manager Ken Hampian, who hired Callahan in 2005.
Callahan, 61, died of a heart attack Aug. 18 after collapsing during a softball game with the city team at Santa Rosa Park in San Luis Obispo.
His career included 32 years with the Los Angeles Fire Department, from which he retired as deputy chief in 2003.
On Friday, firefighters from San Miguel to Los Angeles, wearing black bands across their badges, were among those honoring Callahan’s service.
A procession started at 8 a.m. from Reis Family Mortuary. A Los Angeles fire truck and the San Luis Obispo Fire Department’s new ladder truck — a piece of equipment that Callahan was proud to have acquired — followed a white hearse through downtown.
On Grand Avenue, the flag-draped casket was transferred to a horse-drawn 1906 Seagrave Chemical Wagon and led by the Los Angeles Fire Department Honor Guard and bagpipers. Once it crested a small hill near the Performing Arts Center, the procession passed beneath a large American flag supported by ladder trucks from the San Luis Obispo and Atascadero departments.
Family and friends walked slowly behind the wagon. Callahan’s wife, Lynne, was flanked by San Luis Obispo police Chief Deb Linden and Greg West, a retired assistant chief from the Los Angeles department. West will serve as San Luis Obispo’s interim chief until a new chief is hired.
Callahan’s career in Los Angeles was marked by historic moments. At the forefront of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, he put into place a collaborative training program about the disease that bridged barriers between existing city services.
After the 1987 Whittier Narrows Earthquake, a magnitude 5.9, Callahan wrote the summary action report to review the city’s response.
In 1992, he handled tactical operations during the Rodney King riots, working alongside law enforcement to evaluate the safety of those responding and assigning strike teams as needed. One year later, Callahan directed fire operations for three days during the Topanga Fire in the rugged Santa Monica Mountains, which destroyed more than 10,000 acres.
“The county lost more than 400 homes, but we were able to stop it under his command,” said West, who knew Callahan for 26 years.
Inside the Performing Arts Center, speakers shared memories of Callahan as a colleague, friend and chief.
San Luis Obispo firefighters felt like they had won the lottery when Callahan was selected as fire chief, San Luis Obispo fire Capt. Jeff Gater said.
Callahan “never met a story he didn’t enjoy telling,” Gater said. Callahan also recognized that life is about serving the needs of others, he said.
“The beauty is he really loved what he was doing, right to the last second,” he said.
Linden shared some humorous memories, including the time Callahan wrote an e-mail professing his love for his wife, which he then accidentally sent to all of the city department heads.
“Of all the titles he had, the ones he cherished most were father and husband,” said Mike Ward, the Fire Department chaplain.
Callahan is also survived by his brother, Robert; his children, Danise and Christopher; his stepsons, Erik and Jake; nine grandchildren; and numerous cousins, nieces and nephews.
Friend Wendy Cummings, a retired member of the Los Angeles Fire Department, shared a letter from Callahan’s wife, Lynne, who sat in the front row during the service.
It told of how, 15 years ago, Lynne Callahan met a “soft-spoken, strong and yet gentle man.”When they were married, she knew they would embark on many adventures — starting with fly fishing on their honeymoon.
“Our love story continues,” she wrote. “Not the way we planned.”
Tribune staff writer AnnMarie Cornejo contributed to this report.