SANTA ANA — The only spontaneous applause at Saturday's dedication of the new Orange County Fire Service Monument in Santa Ana's civic center came as an elderly gentleman stepped gingerly onto the sidewalk from the passenger side of a bright red car.
"There it is," the announcer intoned as the audience clapped wildly, "the fire service chaplain's chariot."
The stately entrance was appropriate for Msgr. John Sammon, the legendary hero of Orange County firefighters. Wearing a Fire Department jacket over his priestly collar, the chaplain was escorted to the seat of honor from where he would dedicate the monument that had been his brainchild.
"The man's just incredible," the announcer later offered privately. "He is everywhere."
Indeed Sammon, 77, has been nearly "everywhere" that Southern California fires have erupted for the last 51 years.
The seeds for what was to become his life's work, the priest says, may have been planted during his childhood in Pittsfield, Mass., by his early reaction to the sound of a siren. "I remember being scared every time a firetruck went by," he recalls. "I had to work it out to overcome a fright."
As a young priest in Compton, Sammon began "working it out" by befriending firefighters on and off the job. Eventually, he began accepting chaplain positions at local fire departments and firefighting organizations. That process continued after his 1960 transfer to Orange County, where today he serves as chaplain to 24 fire departments, virtually the county's entire roster.
"He's probably the busiest priest I know," said Bishop Michael Driscoll, auxiliary bishop at the Diocese of Orange to which Sammon is attached. "He has immense energy and he's always available."
In addition to working with firefighters, Sammon serves as chaplain to a host of other organizations, including the Knights of Columbus and the Rams football team.
He is also director of the Holy Name Society and the Society for the Propagation of the Faith and sits on the boards of the Christian Service Council on Aging, Meals on Wheels, National Council on Alcoholism, National Conference of Christians and Jews, Orange County Urban League and United Way, to name a few.
"It seems that every major community event I attend, Msgr. Sammon is the one giving the benediction," said Ed Arnold, a sportscaster for KTLA-Channel 5) in Los Angeles and a longtime Fountain Valley resident who has known the priest for years. "He's the most respected member of the clergy I've ever been around. He's always there."
To be there during fires, the chaplain lives life amid the constant chatter of three police and fire radios--one in his office, one in his car and one near his bed--which are virtually always going.
When a major fire occurs, he appears on the scene like an apparition in a white firefighter's jacket and helmet, mouthing silent prayers for the firefighters doing their jobs. In the event of a death or injury, Sammon is on hand to provide support and counseling. And in all cases he hovers on the periphery, offering comfort and support.
"He's a presence for the firefighters," said Herb Jewell, chief of the Buena Park Fire Department and a veteran of countless fires. "I think they know he's putting in a good word for them; it's a comfort having him around."
Jeff Bowman, chief of the Anaheim Fire Department and president of the Orange County Fire Chief's Assn., agrees. "He's a guiding light for all of us," Bowman said. "The man's a legend."
When Sammon isn't stalking fires or giving benedictions, he can usually be found huddling in his cramped office decorated by such items as a firefighter's hatchet on the wall, fire hydrant on the floor and numerous awards and photographs. Some of them depict the two Orange County firetrucks--"Big John" and "Spirit of Sammon"--that bear the chaplain's name. And a large collection of stuffed Snoopy dolls, arranged in rows, offers playful contrast to the random clutter that attests to his hectic schedule.
"If you say you're here to help people and you're part of the (firefighting) family," Sammon said, "you have to be there. I'm glad to be a priest."
Does he have any plans for retiring?
Heck no, the man in white says. "There's no slowing down; I'm keeping up the pace."