Stanley: Firefighter going out ‘at the top’
BY BRIAN STANLEY Life of Brianemail@example.com July 26, 2013 11:28PM
Operations Chief John Zagar retired Friday after 28 years with the Joliet Fire Department. | Photo by Brian Stanley~Sun-Times Media
Updated: August 29, 2013 7:39PM
John Zagar wanted to be an astronaut when he was a kid. He stayed home from school to watch some of the Apollo moon landings.
The Joliet native ended up “growing too tall to be a pilot,” he said, but he was able to work as a grocery clerk at the old Eagle on Jefferson Street while attending electronics classes at DeVry University.
But when Zagar decided he’d pursue law enforcement in the city, his father-in-law suggested he test for the fire department instead.
“I was waiting on the list for nearly two years and wasn’t going to test again, but a few weeks before it expired, they hired me, Ray Randich and Bob Wohlrab,” Zagar said.
The rookies of February 1985 have done pretty well for the Joliet Fire Department. Randich now is deputy chief. Wohlrab is a captain, and Zagar retired Friday as chief of operations.
Friday also marked Judy Zagar’s retirement from Hartford Insurance. Though she went to Joliet Central while John went to West, the high school sweethearts married the year before he joined the department.
“The fire department always has their golf outing near the weekend of my anniversary. I went one time but have learned never to do that since,” the avid golfer said with a laugh.
Zagar got one week of training at a downstate fire academy before he was given gear and expected to learn the rest on the job. He immediately learned lifesaving wasn’t glamorous when he went to his first call for a woman passed out in the back seat of a car on Second Avenue. His CPR efforts were successful, but also ruined his shoes.
Firefighters have responded to many more medical calls than fire calls in the last three decades, and Zagar was valedictorian of the department’s first paramedic class in 1991.
“Any save is a good save, so I don’t know if one sticks out to me. I think it’s more just what God has written in the book and we’re in the right place at the right time,” Zagar said.
Unfortunately for his storytelling, Zagar never rescued anyone from a burning building — although he once went from the second floor to the basement in a matter of moments when a staircase burned through while he was standing on it.
“I think that’s when I really realized how dangerous this job is,” Zagar said, which is why he considers his biggest accomplishment as a battalion chief the fact that all of his guys got to go home after every shift.
He’s also given younger firefighters advice he received many years ago from his neighbor, the late James Corkran, which he feels applies to any employer.
“Whatever test they offer, any class you can take. Do it. It will pay off,” Zagar said.
John and Judy’s current education concerns center on their daughters Heather, who is studying pharmacy, and Lindsey, who is studying physical therapy.
“They are such great kids. I’ve never bragged about them as much as I should have,” Zagar said.
The girls’ college breaks will change when Zagar moves to Florida in the near future.
“I didn’t want to be an old fireman,” said Zagar, 52. “I’m at the top of the department, so if I wanted to work, I’d just stay here. I love to golf and I love to fish. Florida seems like a good place to try doing that.”
Brian Stanley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.