by Maydeen Merino
photography by Kayla Salas
Christmas morning in La Verne is one of anticipation and surprise. The sound of sirens in the early morning brings children running outside cheering and waving. For it is Santa Claus, riding high on his fire truck sleigh who is handing out treats, along with his Fire Department helpers. This Christmas tradition has continued for about 93 years, and has been captured in a mural painted on the west side of the La Verne Fire Station at Third and C streets. Visible at bottom left is a Santa Claus riding in a red jeep covered in sleigh decorations. The mural is a symbol of pride recognizing La Verne’s holiday tradition, but a few it is a symbol of controversy.
The Fire Station art was created in 2003 by famous local artists Chris Toovey, president and resident artist of the Da Gallery in Pomona, and Joy McAllister, a celebrated local artist. It was financed by a fundraising program headed by the firefighters. Marty Lomeli, then La Verne city manager, helped organize the creation of this mural as well as the other murals around the city. “We have done murals all over town before, so we got together with the guys from the volunteer department, veterans, and some of the newer guys on the crew, and we worked for about four months before we did anything, doing drawings and working with the guys,” artist Toovey says.
The La Verne Fire Department began Dec. 14, 1911, as a volunteer department, consisting of 27 firefighters and one chief. The volunteers were summoned to the station by a very loud siren, which could be heard for miles. In the 1950s, the volunteer department slowly progressed into a professional department. Former volunteer firefighter Charley Farrell, who started in 1969, says in his delightful Brooklyn accent that the volunteer firefighters were a talented group of men. “We did all our own maintenance on the engines; some guys there were mechanics, lawyers, teachers, university people even.” Farrell says he held a 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. job with the city water district, then went to the Fire Station at 6 p.m. and remained there until 6 a.m. During the weekends, some of the volunteer firefighters would even be at the fire station for 24 hours without pay. The volunteer firefighters continued to support the department as it grew. Today, 36 full-time and nine part-time professionals operate out of three stations.
A committee consisting of volunteer firefighter department members, veteran retired firefighters, Chris Toovey and Joy McAllister was created to brainstorm mural ideas. In line with other city murals, the committee worked with historic photos. “Some of the first working drawings involved some kind of dramatic fires and firemen to the rescue, but they did not want to see any fires,” Toovey says. The idea of the long-held Fire Department Christmas tradition was requested by the volunteer firefighters who asked the artists to work this theme into the mural. Toovey says he thought the idea was somewhat goofy. “Joy and I argued against that design; aesthetically it is kind of disjointed, and it was cartoony, but we did what we could when we got that photograph.” Actual La Verne firefighters were painted onto the mural, including Charley Farrell. “I was one of those dummies that stood out there when the guy needed a picture, so I put a uniform on and stood out there while he painted it on the mural. I am one of the firefighters holding the hose there,” Farrell says, pointing to the mural.
The mural was painted in 2003. Later an emergency operations stair structure staircase was built in 2009. “I love the mural, it is a shame they had to put a stairway right in the middle of it,” Farrell says. Toovey returned in 2009 to adjust the mural to flow with the new architecture of the building, and the Santa sleigh was kept in.
From the start, the paid Fire Department members did not appreciate the Santa Claus mural, eventually taking their complaints to the La Verne City Council June 21, 2004. “All the years they have done it [the Christmas tradition], and yet they didn’t want it on their wall. I could never understand why,” Farrell says.
Highly respected and retired Fire Chief Bob Lapp represented the Fire Department at the La Verne City Council meetings and conveyed his strong feelings toward keeping the Christmas theme in the mural. This helped sway the City Council to vote 3-2 to keep it as is. “There were still a lot of volunteers, and they started the tradition of dressing up as Santa Claus and going out to everyone in the city. I guess that’s what really instilled that tradition, and why they have been so adamant about keeping the image in there. As artists, no matter what we did–we cried aesthetics, we said give us a better image, we did everything we could standing on our head–and they wouldn’t budge,” McAllister says. “I think it is a really nice piece; it depicts an almost 100 year tradition that is a very unique feature in the La Verne community. The mural is really a nice way to remember that,” says former La Verne Mayor Jon Blickenstaff. “It’s an inevitable that the change has taken place; we could not have a volunteer fire department in today’s climate with the professional needs of the fire fighters and paramedics, but I don’t view that as an issue that should get in the way. It is just a nice, positive tradition,” he says.
Present day, the Fire Department is still not in favor of the mural. However, following the City Council vote, the Department has not organized another effort to replace it. Once the City Council made the decision to keep the mural, the Department learned to live with it, says Robert Russell, battalion chief of the La Verne Fire Station. “In telling a story, the mural becomes kind of a disjointed kind of lax cohesive story. And what we really had hoped to do was to show or have them paint in place of a sleigh one of our long since retired but somewhat historic pieces of fire apparatus, which was a 1965 crown fire coach.”
“Obviously, it was not well received when it was originally painted, and I work with a group of very dedicated professional firefighters,” says Russell. “I want the public to understand that the Fire Department is more about providing service than just Christmas. It isn’t just about Santa Claus, it isn’t just about that tradition; it’s about everything we do for the community, so in that perspective, it really hasn’t been the most popular portrayal of the service we provide.” ■