For Jerry Riggs, who retired this year after spending more than four decades with Madera County Fire Department Station 16 in Ahwahnee, life is about finding laughter, even during hard times.
Reminiscing over his 44 years at the volunteer station, including more than 20 years as its captain before he retired this January, Riggs described one of his favorite memories as an example of that mentality.
Riggs said Company 16, as the members are known, was once called out to a medical aid at Hillview Estates after a woman in her 80s fell and fractured her pelvis.
As company members got there, Riggs said they realized they couldn’t get the medical gurney into the hallway, where she had crawled to dial for help.
“So we told this lady how we were going to get her out of there by lifting her at an angle across the bed,” Riggs said. “So we picked her up and as soon as we started to cross the bed, she said, ‘remember, I’m fragile, handle with care, and this side up.’ We almost set her down from laughing too much. If somebody kicked my butt hard enough to break my pelvis I’d be bawling like a baby. But she had a great attitude.”
Riggs has always applied that mentality of finding good within the bad, including when he flew to Vietnam in 1963 as a member of the U.S. Army.
“It was scary all the time,” Riggs said. “Every time you got in a helicopter to fly somewhere, you’re wondering about if you’re going to mess up and jeopardize your crew, or if you’re going to get shot down. You’re always wondering what’s going to happen.”
Starting as a helicopter machine gunner before he became a flight engineer, Riggs said on one mission, his group lost a fourth of its flight crews. But it was a pep talk from a doctor that helped boost morale.
“You just have to get used to the bad things,” Riggs said. “The base’s doctor told us you have to have something to laugh about every day. And we told him that wasn’t funny, and he said ‘I realize that, but if you don’t have something to laugh about every day, we’ll be shipping you off to a psychiatric hospital. And I’ve found that carries over into whatever job you’re doing. You can’t laugh about the bad things, but you have to find something good to laugh about.”
Riggs, 76, was born in Visalia and moved to Coalinga when he was 18. After he spent 15 months in Vietnam, and 16 months in Germany, he left the U.S. Army and later came to the Mountain Area in 1970 looking for a job.
After he got married to his late wife Merrielou in 1972, Riggs said a kid started a fire with his scooter near their home on Leach Road in Ahwahnee, so he rushed over with a shovel to help put it out.
That kid’s dad was the assistant chief of the volunteer fire department, and asked if Riggs would be interested in joining. He was, and the rest, as Riggs would say, is history.
“The only reason that I joined county firefighting was to see what I could do to help out the community and the people that I serve,” Riggs added. “Personal recognition, that’s not what it’s ever been about. I’m not one for looking for attention.”
“Jerry is a friendly, quiet, and humble man with a big heart and small ego,” said Bob Kernaghan, acting captain at the station in Jerry’s retirement. “I have rarely seen Jerry angry or upset, and never about the little things that can set off so many managers ... his departure has left a huge gap in Company 16. “Both in the leadership role, and in response to emergencies.”
Kernaghan said the station is down to three volunteers, from a high of more than 20 in the 1990s.
Outside of firefighting, Riggs spent 37 years working for Suburban Propane, once called Vangas, before retiring in 2007. In his spare time, Riggs said he’d like to keep mostly to himself and, with a passion for mechanic work, revitalize a 1927 Rio car he got from his grandparents when he was a teenager.
“My grandma, when I was about 7, asked me if I really liked that car and I told her it was the neatest thing I’d ever seen,” Riggs said. “So she said when I turned 16 and had a license, it was mine ... but now I’ve been waiting to get started on fixing it for 44 years. I guess I’ve got the time now.”
Riggs has three children, one of whom, his daughter Barbara, a standout softball player at Yosemite High, passed away in 2009. He also has eight grandchildren and five great grandchildren, who he said “keep me on my toes.”
On April 19, Riggs was presented a proclamation by the Madera County Board of Supervisors for his service to the community.