Wygant honored during awards banquet
<subhead> Local dignitaries pay tribute to former chief
By Joseph Bell
Ridgway, Pa. – Former Ridgway Fire Department chief John Wygant was honored Saturday night during the department's annual awards banquet at Central Fire Station.
Wygant, chief of the department for 14 years, stepped down during the latter part of 2013.
"I think this is the first time I've been speechless-- yeah, that's unusual," Wygant said as he accepted awards from the Elk County Fire Chiefs Association, the Ridgway Fire Department, Ridgway mayor Dr. Guillermo Udarbe, and state Representative Matt Gabler (R-Clearfield/Elk). "Thank you very much. If it wasn't for the people sitting here, I couldn't have done what I did. Every person in here had something to do with what went on, and all I had to do was ask, 'Can you help me out?' and I'd have people tripping over each other. That means a lot."
Scott Pontious, current chief of the Ridgway Fire Department, presented Wygant with a plaque to thank him for his "many years of dedicated service to the Ridgway Fire Department and the community you serve."
Bill Kraus, chief of Crystal Fire Department in St. Marys, spoke Saturday night as he paid tribute to Wygant and recalled the creation of the Elk County Fire Chiefs Association back in the early 2000s.
"Quite a few years ago when John [Wygant] and myself went in as chiefs in Elk County here, we got together and talked about how they had an Elk County Firemen's Association, and John and I got to talking about how it'd be nice to have an Elk County Fire Chiefs Association," Kraus said. "A lot of times when the county association has questions and answers that they needed, they always had to come to the chiefs, so we got together with the other chiefs in the county to suggest this."
Kraus said the group had their first meeting in Ridgway in 2002 as Wygant ran the meeting.
"Lo and behold, I got up to use the restroom and when I came back out, everyone was laughing," Kraus said. "I looked at everybody, looked at John, and he had his famous grin, and I said 'What's the matter?' He said, 'You were just elected president of the Elk County Fire Chiefs Association.' So we went on with our elections, John was elected vice president and John Schneider (Jay Township Fire Department) is our secretary. We don't have any money changing hands or anything, it's just a roundtable discussion to get the chiefs all together from the counties on a quarterly basis. We formed it in 2002 and maybe we don't make any big decisions, but it really helps to keep everyone on the same page.
"Like I learned [Saturday] morning [during a fatal fire in St. Marys], with this community and the County of Elk, some people have no idea the mutual aid agreement we have with the fire departments and how lucky we are. No matter what anyone needs in any department in this county, we're all there for each other and it means a heck of a lot, and it was proven to me [Saturday] morning."
The association presented a plaque to Wygant "For many years of dedicated services to the communities that you serve and a founder of the Elk County Fire Chiefs Association."
Udarbe also spoke at the banquet, highlighting Wygant's 37-year career as a volunteer firefighter.
Wygant became a state-certified fire instructor in 1984 and in 2001 was honored as Instructor of the Year at Butler County Community College for his work with fire and HAZMAT training.
"John's moment in time as a firefighter was the train explosion at the west end of Ridgway," Udarbe said of the Feb. 10, 1979 inferno that destroyed a 1968 Ward LaFrance pumper fire truck and the Second Ward Hose Company station in the west end of Ridgway. "John, Mike Plaster, Ray Imhof and other volunteers extinguished the burning inferno, the biggest fire ever in the history of Ridgway.
"During his time of fire chief, especially at the height of the economic recession, many fire departments have dwindled in membership figures but he launched a program called 'Boots to Fill,' and this department brings in young volunteers every year."
Udarbe presented Wygant with a distinguished service award "For saving lives and outstanding protection to the citizens of Ridgway and surrounding communities."
Gabler was also on hand Saturday and paid tribute to Wygant.
"It's been a pleasure working with John and he was the first intimidating face that I saw in this room when I walked in here wide-eyed and not sure what to expect at the first banquet I came to," Gabler said. "[Wygant] has a pretty good way of putting on that intimidating face but he's just a big old teddy bear. It's been an honor to work with him in his years as chief and to become his friend, and it's been awesome to see the services that he's given.
"Just as a token of my appreciation and a recognition of your service, I wanted to present you with this official letter of commendation from the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, and I'd like to share it with everyone."
The letter reads: "Dear John, I'm honored to extend my most heartfelt congratulations and best wishes to you as you celebrate the honorable conclusion of your 14 years of service as chief of the Ridgway Fire Department. I personally am thankful for the opportunity to work together with you to serve the citizens of Ridgway for the past five years. I know that the citizens of Ridgway and your fellow firefighters are truly grateful for your service to the department, borough, and community. Through your service you've shown me to always place community first. Your valuable experience, safe wisdom and unwavering commitment have provided unmatched leadership to the department, especially in most difficult times. You've been a leader, mentor and friend to many in the department and you were there for the citizens in their deepest hour of despair. In addition to your years as chief you continue to serve as a fire school instructor and work hard to pass on your knowledge and experience to the next generation of firefighters. The Ridgway community, the County of Elk, and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania are deeply grateful for your commitment to service. I want to thank you for the many opportunities we've had to work together and more importantly I'm truly honored and thankful to call you my friend. I look forward to many future opportunities to continue our work together and to share our friendship for years to come. Congratulations on your many accomplishments and the celebration of your honorable service."