Matthew Trujillo, 23, made it into the Tucson Fire Department by the seat of his industrial, flame-proof pants.
Not because he isn’t up to the task, said his uncle Richard Trujillo, but because the last 12 recruits who entered the academy this time around nearly got shut out of a job because of budget cuts.
Instead, Trujillo, and the other 11 last-to-enroll recruits, joined a total of 34 men and one woman at Friday’s graduation at the Tucson Convention Center, 260 S. Church Ave.
Hundreds of folks were on hand to cheer for the new firefighters, with signs, noisemakers and standing ovations.
Special honors went to Jeremiah Tabaj, who was chosen by secret ballot by his peers as the class’s outstanding recruit, also known as the “Super Boot.”
“It will make you stronger or break you,” he said of the 22 weeks of heavy-duty training the recruits endured. “Every day you found yourself being pushed far beyond your capacity. To say it was life-changing is truly an understatement.”
The graduation celebration was large, long and most likely the only one for 2008, said emcee Deputy Chief Laura Baker.
“This will be the last graduation before Chief Dan Newburn and Assistant Chief Gerald Bates retire at the end of the year,” she said.
Also retiring – and honored – was Fire Department secretary Diane Lewis for her 28 years of service and her help with 25 recruiting classes.
“A lot of people are retiring,” said Theresa Pope, who was with her family at the graduation to support her husband, training Capt. Dave Pope. “It could become dangerous if they don’t replace them. They need to fill the positions.”
Finding people who want the jobs is not the problem. Her son Colton Pope, 17, said he is definitely going to follow in his father’s footsteps.
“It’s a great opportunity, a very secure job,” Pope said. “From the stories my father tells me, you experience all different kinds of situations and meet different kinds of people.”
Another graduate, Andrew Grimes, is a third-generation firefighter. His father, Capt. James Grimes, is a 23-year veteran. His grandfather, Assistant Chief Wesley Grimes, retired in 1988.
Matthew Trujillo’s family, too, knows the joy of firefighting.
His father, Andy Trujillo, is a captain with 26 years in the department. Other family members work for Tucson and Rural Metro fire crews.
His uncle Richard Trujillo also wanted to follow that path, but said he was shut out of a job.
He tried out at a time when the department began hiring women, he said, and there were fewer openings for men.
He followed the family’s other path – into the grocery business. “My grandfather was a door-to-door milkman,” he said of his grandfather, who went on to own a downtown Tucson grocery that has since been sold.
“Firefighters are a really family-oriented group,” he said. “They stand for brotherhood and camaraderie.”
Colton Pope wants to join that brotherhood and said if Tucson isn’t hiring firefighters when he’s ready within the next two years, he’ll go to college and wait out a hiring freeze.
“I’d rather wait four years than go someplace else,” he said.
His little brother, Chase Pope, 7, has a lot of time before he has to worry if a hiring freeze will affect his firefighting career decision. But he also has a backup plan once he gets out of high school.
“I’m going to be a football player first,” he said. “Then a firefighter.”
This article originally appeared in the June 21, 2008, issue of the Tucson Citizen newspaper.