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Truman Showen was Ceres' first paid fireman
As Ceres Fire Department celebrates its 100th anniversary in 2010, only one man in Ceres can say he's served the city during four decades: Truman Showen.

He also has the distinction of being the first paid fire chief ever. Now at age 76, Showen looks back on the simplicity of the age now with firefighting being a more complicated science than when he was hired on Oct. 1, 1958 as Fire Marshal.

"It's gotten really complicated," he said of fire science. When he was hired the only training he had was driving a fire truck while serving in the Army during the Korean Conflict.

Showen remembers missing the work when he retired on April 16, 1984 after spending 17 years as chief.

"When I served we'd put a fire out and come back and let's party type of thing," said Showen. "They really didn't push for any type of training in those days. We tried to work some training in but you have to realize oh a lot of these guys were working eight to nine hours and wouldn't want to spend two hours drilling. We had to do things to keep their interest in being a volunteer."

Showen's work ethic was to "work hard but play hard, too."

The work was more playing coach and psychology rather than tending to the science of fighting fires. He had the burden of keeping morale going among the volunteers.

"Caring for the volunteers was a problem too. You not only become the chief of them, and try to keep them in line and doing things, you become a brother, a father to them, and a marriage counselor. These kind of things sort of build up on you."

Showen remembers putting on special events, such as a ladies night dance or steak dinners, to keep up interest.

In those days, fire suppression operations were under funded, he said. Showen recalls battling the City Council for funds for much needed equipment or part-time clerical help. They refused to buy a jaws of life so the community raised funds for a pair.

His role often included janitorial and maintenance work. As chief with little budget, Showen had to jerry-rig things to get them to work. He has a photograph showing him setting up an electrical device to get fire calls.

"When we built the new garage onto the old garage, I was putting up the mechanism that ran the siren and everything," explained Showen. "When the call came from the county dispatcher, they picked up the telephone. We had a phone on the wall. When that phone rang it started the siren."

Showen hated going to auto accidents. "Some of them were really terrible," he said. "One night we were doing something at the fire station and we got a call of a head-on accident at between Whitmore and Hatch in the southbound lanes. Well, someway or another one drunk got on the road and hit another drunk. Both of them in the fast lane, doing probably about 50. This one guy was taking a drink out of a beer and the beer can was shoved down his throat and was still right there in his mouth. The hood had come up and busted the windshield and almost took his head off. These are the kind of gruesome things you don't forget."

Another horrific incident occurred the very night he was hired as fire marshal. He was dispatched to was the gasoline tanker truck that blew up at Fourth and El Camino when the frontage road was then the highway. The crash happened when a truck driver had to lock up his wheels to prevent from hitting a motorist running a red light. The sudden braking caused the tanker to jackknife and flip and then explode. The driver was burned and died. As soon as Showen was finished fighting the fire, he had his brother-in-law to fetch his badge and gun issued as a reserve police officer so he could switch hats and direct traffic.

That night the City Council was scheduled to hire him as the first paid firefighter.

"By the time we got back to the fire station had finished their meeting and I was hired that night," said Showen.

Even though he was fire chief, at night he continued to serve as a reserve officer for a while.

Showen had to develop thick skin on the job. Once a fire broke out at 3100 Whitmore Avenue (now Casa Grande Apartments) in which two boys, playing with a cigarette lighter, ignited a blaze that took their lives. Some residents at the complex complained to the news media that he Showen was to blame because he hadn't check fire extinguishers at the complex. He remembers being aided in the firefight by two sheriff's deputies who were reserve firefighters

"When you have a death you've got news people. I got a hold of (Police) Chief (Leroy) Cunningham and told him, 'You take care of this media. Get them off my back!' And he did. But I lost a lot of sleep on this."

Showen earned better media coverage right behind the same apartment complex when he assisted in the rescue of a young girl who crawled into a vertical irrigation pipe.

"I kept talking to her and she got used to my voice."

When Showen pulled the girl out she clung to Showen. "Her mother came up and another lady. She would not turn loose of my neck."

An old photograph taken in the 1960s or 1970s provides a tender glimpse into Showen's heart. The chief responded to an attempted suicide of a woman in an older part of town. Showen took her two sons home to provide for them.

"They were just dirty and hungry and my wife and I fed them and gave them a bath and we fixed them up with clothes," said Showen. "And then I took them back down to the Police Department and then they had the people come in from Child Protective Services."

Showen was not immuned from his own tragedies. In the 1990s his young grandson died of a mysterious death while sleeping in his home. Weeks later his distraught wife Norma, unable to cope with the loss, took her own life on the train tracks. Showen was plunged into unspeakable grief and he couldn't understand why the community seemed as if it didn't care.

"I'd go to the store. People, I think, just didn't know what to say to me. They would duck around and not have to try come up and communicate with me. It sort of bent my nose a little bit until someone explained it to me a little bit more. People don't know what to say."

Truman was born Oct. 12, 1933 in Gage County, Nebraska. His father died of tuberculosis when he was young. His grandmother in Modesto brought the family to California in 1942. Truman attended grammar school in Turlock while living in Keyes but didn't like the way Keyes students were treated in Turlock so he quit school. After he quit school he worked for Patchett's Ford in Newman until he was laid off. He went back to school, only to try out Ceres schools. He walked or rode his bicycle to Ceres every day for two years. School teacher Maud Smith made arrangements for Truman to babysit her children and got the head custodian to let Truman clean classrooms for $5 per month. That got his foot in the door for employment after he was laid off at Patchett's. He found his first good paying job as a janitor at Whitmore School.

In April 1953 Showen was drafted into the Army to fight in Korea. He was assigned to drive a fire truck to occasional put out fires that broke out in tents. Showen left the Army in April 1955, went back to the Ceres school to work and got married in May. A friend talked him into considering applying for a police reserve officer position and served from 1955 to 1958. Officer Hank Trantham urged Showen to apply for the fire chief's job, telling him that "you got as good a chance as any of the rest of them." The only other applicant walked away when he found out the salary was only $325 per month.

"It was better than what I was getting at the school. The school was paying only like $280."