Tom, Jack, and The Dog Man: The Secret to Leaving an Indelible Legacy

Published: 3/18/2020
Author: Jeffrey D. Johnson, Executive Director, Western Fire Chiefs Association

San Jose Police Chief (Ret.) Chris Moore called me recently, which isn’t all that unusual. You see, I spent four years with Chris, former APCO President Dick Mirgon, and Assistant Chief NYPD (Ret.) Chuck Dowd in Washington, D.C., working to legislatively create what is now known as FirstNet, the world’s first nationwide public safety broadband network. 

Chris is not a typical cop in that he started as a volunteer firefighter in Kentfield, Calif., and then became a cop. I mean seriously, who does that? Chris asks if I would accompany him to an annual dinner of former Kentfield Fire Department members who have remained in contact by holding this event back at their old department. I’m in... but not really sure for what. I discover what I’m actually in for as we inch along in Bay Area traffic. Chris briefs me as walkers pass our vehicle but we eventually arrive in a room with a bar and a dinner in full prep mode. 

Soon, I’m surrounded by over 100 firefighters, a familiar family I’ve never met. I know each of them categorically because they fill our firehouses, and have for generations: the Italian cook, the Captain’s daughter tending bar, the funny guy, the guy who wanted to come but doesn’t like crowds, the guy everyone is trying to avoid... you know them. They span over 40 years of Kentfield Fire Department history. 

They gather annually, but tonight is special. They are here to honor their recently deceased chief Robert Mariani fondly nicknamed ‘The Dog Man.’ Chief Mariani passed at age 81 following the loss of his home and life possessions in the devastating Paradise, Calif., wildfire. While he and his best friend (his dog) barely escaped with their lives, the disaster took something greater from him. He passed shortly thereafter. 

As the dinner begins and the crowd remembers The Dog Man, they speak with great reverence of what he gave them. His style was at least unorthodox by today’s standards: blunt, coarse, demanding, at times threatening, but beyond all... caring. Evident in each anecdote is a thick layer of “you knew he cared about you,” and that he only wanted the best for his people and the department. Everyone is thinking about their memories of The Dog Man. Everyone, except me.

I am thinking about my first chief, Tom Wells, Chief (Ret.) from Sutherlin, Ore., and Chief Jack Snook (Ret.) from Tualatin Valley Fire and Rescue. Both of these men have been very influential on my life and career. Like The Dog Man, Tom and Jack are phenomenal leaders but unique in their approach to leadership. While different, they share the same values about what actually matters.

Tom is a cowboy. Not the fake kind you see in bars near rodeo season, but a real one. Tom is the kind of cowboy who is plain-spoken, honest, loyal, follows the rules, and expects you to do the same. He is the kind of cowboy who can fix anything with a motor, builds his own house, and knows stuff nobody knows anymore. Like The Dog Man, some of  Tom’s most effective teachings aren’t fit for a professional article. I will say, you knew when the meeting was over because he’d simply insert mid-sentence: “don’t let the door hit you in the ass on your way out.” There you go, meeting over! You always knew where you stood and what he thought. It wasn’t complicated. His loyalty, friendship, values and mission was not for sale or corruptible and his lessons have proved timeless.  

Jack is a visionary. A leader in the purest form, with a strong vein of “we are not losing this game” competitiveness woven in. Jack loves to compete, hates to lose, and has the emotive passion to accompany those edges. If Tom solidified my core leadership behaviors, Jack polished them and added high expectations of professionalism. Looking back, Jack was 30 years ahead of his time and virtually caused the re-imagination of the modern fire service. Of all the great leaders in his generation, Jack was more about building a sustainable business model using modern practices. Jack taught me to think much further into the future and think about a sustainable model. However, like Tom, Jack’s loyalty, friendship, values and mission was not for sale or corruptible and his lessons have proven timeless.   

Do you know why Tom, Jack, and The Dog Man made such an indelible difference as leaders? Two simple reasons: they were unwaveringly focused on excellence, and they genuinely cared. They cared not about their legacy, but about the excellence of our services and the people who delivered them. Their legacies as leaders are an outcome of their work, not the reason for their work.  

As an individual with influence, what you should be thinking right now is what I was thinking at the dinner in Kentfield: the most significant and impactful leaders do basically the same things. They build people, demand excellence, point the way and help people achieve their own goals while building something timeless: culture... culture built around an unwavering mission.  

If I haven’t said it before, thanks to Tom, Jack, The Dog Man, and the countless people like them who built this incredible profession. We are only temporarily serving within a service others built. Let’s forget about building our individual legacy because true legacy only comes from your work, not a desire to be remembered.  

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