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Notable People:

Samuel Joseph Spear
Battalion Chief

  • Appointed March 1, 1903, age 23
    • Assigned to Engine Co. No. 23
    • Other assignments as a fireman: 1904, Engine Co. No. 29, 1911, Engine Co. No. 26
  • Appointed Lieutenant, November 16, 1911
  • Appointed Captain, November 16, 1914 as #1 on the list
  • Appointed Battalion Chief, September 20, 1917 as #1 on the list
  • Died - July 4, 1925 (in office)

By: Ronny J. Coleman, California State Fire Marshal, 1992-1999

But what kind of guy was Samuel Joseph Spear?  He was born in San Francisco in 1879. He was only 46 years old when he met an untimely death.  Before he died, he demonstrated how to succeed.  Sam joined the department in 1903, and passed the first fireman's sole service examination as number one in his class.

In seven years, Spear was made a lieutenant.  Four years later, he again earned the top score on the captain's exam.  He headed the civil service list for battalion chief in 1917.  And when he died, he was first on the list to be appointed second assistant chief engineer.

As Chairman of the Campaign Committee, he led the vain fight of the two platoon system in 1912.  Undaunted by defeat, he made plans for another battle to achieve the goal.

Does the Name Sam Spear Ring a Bell?

Aug 1, 2008 12:00 PM
Sam Spear is dead.  He's been dead a long time.  And the funny thing was, I didn't even know it.  I still wouldn't know it if I didn't happen to be one of those persons who simply cannot drive by a fire station without going in and looking around.  That is how I found out that Sam was no longer with us.  But I will bet that there are a whole bunch of other people who didn't know that Sam was dead either.  And that is a shame; because from what I can find out, Sam was someone who I think that I would have liked.  In fact, I bet fire service professionals would have liked him too.  The proof was there for review in his epitaph.

I found Sam by accident.  I was conducting an inspection at fire stations for a planning effort when I came upon a letter on the wall of a fire station in Northern California.  The letter was framed and titled: A Memoriam Samuel Joseph Spear — 1879 - 1925.

The letter on the wall started off with: "The brave little champion of the fire of San Francisco went to his death last 4th of July, in the waters of the lagoon at Brighton Beach, San Mateo County.  He died as lived, heroically, in an attempt to save his two drowning boys.  The children were rescued by others while their father perished beneath the waves.  He is gone.  But behind him he leaves an enduring monument — not a fine stone or marble, but a moment of his greatest endeavor."

I was expecting the next couple of words to be about his family or something about his heroics on a fire.  Instead I found, "the two platoon system."  Right.  At one time the fire service only had one platoon.  You worked everyday.  Time off was measured in terms of hours and minutes.

The letter's writer went on to say, "It is not too much to say that were it not for Sam Spear the two platoon system might still be a vague vision devoutly to be wished for rather than to be part and parcel of the department regulations.  Thus he led the fireman out variable house of bondage into the promise land of decent hours and better conditions.  As Chairman of the Campaign Committee, he led the vain fight of the two platoon system in 1912. Undaunted by defeat, he made plans for another battle to achieve the goal."

Wow!  This guy was some kind of hero, wasn't he?  He stood up for principle.  And he didn't do it just to get accolades from those he served, the citizenry.  He took a stand for those he served with, his fellow firefighters.

The writer went on, describing Sam Spear as a person who "bravely he met the attacks on the two platoon system made by property owners, merchants and professional men.  Calmly he talked to them, turned the logic of his arguments on them and converted them to his side.  He won the battle by winning their respect, by forcing them to admit that the firemen were men as well as public servants.  Despite almost insurmountable difficulties, the measure carried in 1916."

That says to me that Sam Spear was someone who understood what it meant to have courage under pressure.  And he passed that test with flying colors.  The letter writer continued to eulogize Sam, showing just what type of character this man possessed.

"In the pay raise granted in 1918 and the last year, Chief Spear was in the forefront of both fights.  His time and talents were placed freely at the command of his comrades.  His sincerity of approach, his forceful manner and distinctive argumentative style won the people of the fireman's causes as they had in the two platoon campaigns."

Sam didn't stop with getting the two-platoon system.  He didn't stop with getting the guys a raise.  Sam continued to fight for the basic rights of those he served with.  According to the eulogy, "He realized that the civil service system could be perpetuated and good working conditions obtained only by the formation of a central fireman's organization.  Accordingly, with others, he founded the David Scannell plug and served as its first president."

But what kind of guy was Samuel Joseph Spear?  He was born in San Francisco in 1879. He was only 46 years old when he met an untimely death. Before he died, he demonstrated how to succeed.  Sam joined the department in 1903, and passed the first fireman's sole service examination as number one in his class.

In seven years, Spear was made a lieutenant.  Four years later, he again earned the top score on the captain's exam.  He headed the civil service list for battalion chief in 1917.  And when he died, he was first on the list to be appointed second assistant chief engineer.

He was a guy who, if magically brought back to life today, would be fiercely competitive for the next exam.  He probably would be just as committed today as he was back then.  He was no armchair firefighter — he was engaged.

Again, the letter writer reminded the reader that Spear was a man of action.  "Justly has he been called a hero.  In 1909 he saved several of his comrades from death in the burning whole of the steamer Contra Costa.  Five years ago he swam half a block off Meiggs to rescue a drowning man.  At this hour, a gold medal lies in the office of the fire commissioner inscribed with his name for the rescue of a woman at a Golden Gate Avenue blaze — alas, it can never be presented."

If you think we invented the idea of getting an education to be a fire officer, think again.  Spear pursued the four-year night courses at St. Ignacio College and graduated with a bachelor's degree of law when he was 45 years old.  If he had been able to live to enjoy his retirement from the department he planned to engage on the practice of his profession.

Charles Boden, the author of the eulogy, stated that, "There is no eulogy for Sam Spear.  He needs none.  In a simple narrative of the deeds of a man who lived a brilliant life of love and service and died even a more normal death.  To his crushed wife and children and sorrowing relatives the fireman offered heartfelt sympathy."

That sort of sounds like the phrase we keep hearing repeated over an over again: "Our thoughts and prayers are with you tonight..." Boden also predicted that the San Francisco's firefighters would not forget Sam Spear.  Boden called him the "prophet of the new day" in the department; apostle of the square deal, and wished that his sincere friend and his memory would be ever green.  But you know what?  I don't think that happened.

We did forget.  All of those who enjoy the platoon system owe a debt of gratitude to Sam Spear.  Those who have a decent wage as a firefighter owe a debt of gratitude to all of the Sam Spear of the world.  But more importantly, we all owe it to the service to remember that each generation makes a contribution and that no one generation owns the image of the fire service.

We really talk a lot about tradition and then forget to remember those that fabricated it for us.  We talk a lot about courage, but then think that the only acts of courage are those that are exhibited on the fireground.

I am sorry that I didn't know who Sam Spear was till I read that letter.  I did know about the creator of the Kelly day, which preceded the two-platoon system.  But I didn't know about Sam.  I have offered up this tale of recollection as reminder that it's not all about us; it's all about all of us — the past, the present and the future.

I hope that there are young firefighters out there who could learn something about integrity from a man who died almost eight decades ago. I would hope that there are young fire chiefs out there who can say that they care as much about taking care of their personnel as a man who only made about $100 a month.  Sam Spear might have sacrificed his life along time ago, but he is a role model for our industry today.


With more than 40 years in the fire service, Ronny J. Coleman has served as fire chief in Fullerton and San Clemente, Calif., and was the fire marshal of the State of California from 1992 to 1999. He is a certified fire chief and a master instructor in the California Fire Service Training and Education System. A Fellow of the Institution of Fire Engineers, he has an associate's degree in fire science, a bachelor's degree in political science and a master's degree in vocational education.

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